A Bit of Rope: 52. Secrets In The Dark

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52. Secrets In The Dark

Secrets In The Dark

            The old Orc squinted in the guttering torchlight as he approached the heavy door. He had but a little time before his last chance to understand the secret that had so recently been revealed would slip by forever…

 * * *

         The others, the ones who answered to him here, beneath the ground, called him Shârkglub. A sign of respect, perhaps—it might mean Old One, or Elder… but could as well mean Old Fool. He allowed the subtle taunt, because there was, for the underlings, a twinge of fear in the name. For he was old—older than all of them, older than he could count. If he'd ever been called another name, he had long ago forgotten it.

          Shârkglub had no idea how many years he had been drawing breath in the service of the Masters. As far as he could remember, his life had always been as it was now. He'd once carried sword and spear in war—all Orcs had. But ages ago, he had been culled from the ranks of ordinary, disposable soldiers and given a new task. Some captain had marked his aptitude—cold steadiness, the lack of crazed blood-lust, the mechanical way he could kill, or maim, or neither, without a speck of emotion—and had chosen him for a different, darker life.

          He had perfected his skills beneath the New Master's other great Tower—the one that was gone now, under the waves. But he had first been trained in the Arts by those who served the Old Master in His vast Fortress in the Cold North, nigh on the rim of the world. And beyond those ancient days… He could sometimes sense—as if from the edge of sight, always flickering away when he tried to see them more clearly—deeper, darker places still… and filmy mysteries, older even than the dark places, that hid behind haze too thick for his old eyes to penetrate.

            But whatever was past was past, and best forgotten. Now, he lived and ruled below, in the Pits of Lugbûrz. Here, away from Captains and Mouths and Nazgûl, ordinary Orcs were in charge, and he, Shârkglub, was Chief of the Pit Orcs. He was Master here, and those enemies stupid or slow enough to be caught alive were brought to him. Man, Dwarf, Elf—he had seen thousands of them, through the ages. They came in various heights, colors and breeds, speaking every kind of tongue, blown in on desolate winds from all corners of the earth. In the old days, a few had even come from over the Sea. They had all been different—and every last one of them, the same.

          His task was simple enough: to twist, and twist, and twist, until something gave way. Simple—but the arts devised to do the twisting were cunning indeed, and the icy cold, steady restraint needed to balance heartbeat against agony was an uncommon skill. He'd seen all too many captives quickly snuffed out by eager lust, by a craving for entertainment—a waste. He was unaffected by such emotions. Whereas others trained in the Arts might derive a vicious sort of pleasure from their work, he felt nothing—not a whiff of enjoyment, and not a drop of mercy. It was that peculiar absence of feeling that made him damned good at his job. If such a thing could be said about it, he was proud of his ability. He was an artist.

          He always started light and slow. Weak ones splintered, like dry wood. Some were broken already, before they were even brought to him. When the weak ones broke, they howled and begged to tell their secrets—mostly lies, he knew, invented in desperation to stop the splintering. Once their tongues loosened, they quickly lost their usefulness. He would gather their words, carry them up the long stairways and deliver them in neat packages for the Masters to sift. Then he would return down the stairs and rid the place of the broken leavings, sweeping them away like so much trash. And start in on the next one.

         Strong ones broke too, nearly always. It might take a while—years, for some. He would keep at it, twisting, twisting, whether they broke or not, 'til he was told to cease. He cared nothing for the secrets. He'd been at it long enough to know that what little truth he produced was hardly worth the effort, either for him to pry loose or for his captives to stubbornly hide from him. Might as well toss bones, or read entrails, for the value of what was dragged forth. The Art itself—that was what mattered, and that it was done with skill, and with no more feeling than the chains that bound his victims.

          A few didn't break, no matter how Shârkglub twisted and warped them, flesh, mind and spirit. Nearly every Dwarf he'd had in his charge—tough as the stone they delved, those little rats—was unbreakable. Plenty of Elves were, too, particularly those from over the Sea… and a few Men. It was hard work, when that happened—hard for the captive, hard for the captor. Stupid fools. Quite often he found himself tempted to tell them, just make something up, you maggot. No one cares, the Bosses ain't smart enough to tell the difference… But of course, he never said any such thing. Indeed, he spoke little to his charges. That was someone else's job.

         What happened when they had an Unbreakable on their hands wasn't up to him. The Masters would decide, this or that one was too stubborn—had to die. Or another was changed enough. They'd send him back to his homelands, as a lesson for others to see and learn: this is what will happen to you, if you try the same sort of foolish rebelliousness. Often enough the Master simply forgot, and left the strong, partway broken ones with him. He'd play with them, 'til he lost interest. Or he'd pass them on to another, a treat for a favored underling, or as practice for the new maggots to learn their trade. Later he'd hear how stubbornness had finally let go, spirit had fled, leaving nothing but a corpse. His fellows might pause, reminisce about this or that one, how much fun they'd provided. He never joined in such foolishness. All captives were the same to him.

            For they had all been the same, the captives he'd seen in uncounted years as Chief Pit Orc of Angband or Tól-in-Gaurhoth or Dol Guldur or Lugbûrz.

            Until now.

            The gate guards reported that whirling spikes of violet and blue-green fire fell from the sky even as they saw the dust cloud rising from the West Road, followed swiftly by booms of thunder. Then all at once the clouds opened and it was raining—raining!—just as the party from Morgul City came trotting across the drawbridge. Rain? Who ever heard of rain in Mordor—complete with lightning, and on the Ash Plains, no less! It had never happened, not in Shârkglub's long, long memory. What it meant, he couldn't guess—nothing good, that was sure. The sudden thunderclap followed by the steady drumming could be heard all the way down into the Pits. He remembered how they all stopped, confused, and looked up at the odd sound, sniffed the suddenly moist air. And though they soon understood the source of the noise, it took Shârkglub much longer to grasp what it meant.

            The new captive did not come unannounced. The Mouth sent a message below, that they were to prepare. A special enemy, caught before the gate of the Nazgûl City—and then the messenger lowered his voice, and muttered for Shârkglub's ears alone. Two Nazgûl—two, and a very large number of lads—had been downed by this one, he whispered, yes, by this one alone. How? Shârkglub asked urgently. Fire, the answer came, as the messenger turned tail and bolted upstairs. Sure, the Pit Chief thought, run, you maggot, and leave us to deal with this fire-breathing monster they're bringing…

            Soon, the High Wraith himself strode in from the rain, looking like a half-drowned rat, that black robe clinging to his undead flesh, steaming mad and hissing like a boiling kettle. Shârkglub and his lads gathered, jeering at the sight of their new captive, a ridiculous old human, stumbling as they dragged him down the stairs. Could this pathetic thing be the fire-monster taken outside Morgul Gate? Shârkglub snorted and laughed. Apparently someone thought he was important, for the Mouth himself came down to snap orders as the captive, soaked through and streaked with mud-ash, was thrown to the floor by the dripping wet Nazgûl and his equally drenched soldiers. Here was one who'd lived too far beyond his allotted span of mortal years—grey, wrinkled and decrepit. Why they'd bothered to fetter this doddering old man with chains from neck to ankle struck Shârkglub as odd—until he got a better look.

            The Chief Pit Orc suddenly realized he had seen this Grey One before—and not seen him. In one of the many in-between times, when the Masters were in hiding and their Towers stood empty, Shârkglub had been in service to the Great Goblin of the Mountains. And here, if he was not mistaken, was the same devilish, tricky sorcerer who had magicked himself into vanishing, slain the Great Goblin, and escaped with over a dozen thieving prisoners!

            Shârkglub's laughter died abruptly, even as his fellows went on sneering, jabbing and prodding at the new captive. That incident in Goblin Town was just one of many disturbing tales shared over campfires about this nasty, grey-cloaked enemy. Other stories told of lightning and fire, of a hideous sword that seared the eye as quickly as it clove through flesh, of a voice that sent shivers down the spines of good lads, strong lads, melting their resolve and scattering them like frightened beetles. The Pit Chief stepped back a pace, hardly listening to the drones and hisses of the Mouth and the High Nazgûl bragging of new heights of glory and the urgency of the task before them, as he studied the chained figure kneeling in the center of a circle of foes.

             The Orc's blood ran chill as the captive raised his head. Of everyone in that crowded, noisy room, the prisoner chose to look at him. Shârkglub was no fool. He knew that to show anything, any emotion, but especially fear to a captive was just about the worst thing a Pit Orc could do—so he hid what he felt, and stared back, as coldly as he could. The rest of the room kept on clamoring, shouting and poking. But for a moment, their eyes locked. One bristly grey brow rose—that was all. Then the captive's head was jerked aside as the Nazgûl yanked on the chain fastened to the iron collar about his neck. The brief moment passed, and in no time Shârkglub and his boys were about their task.

* * *

            It was strange, looking back, how the rumors of trouble outside began at nearly the same moment he arrived. Had it not been the next day, or very soon afterward, that news too evil to believe was muttered in the hallways? Not even the High Ones could deny that the War was going badly. The bloody Tarks had thrown off the siege of their Stone City, and thousands—nay, tens of thousands—of good lads were never coming home. Umbar had turned coat, it was said, and the ships from the south that were carrying reinforcements had suddenly been filled with enemies. Even the weather had slipped loose from the New Master's control—winds from the Great Sea, the whispers said. No one mentioned the earlier time, just days before, when the sky around Lugbûrz itself had gone mad. Shârkglub noted it, thought it unlikely just a coincidence, though he wasn't idiot enough to say anything aloud.

        Harder yet to fathom, but two more Nazgûl were gone—including, unbelievable as it seemed, the High Nazgûl himself. Gothmog, his lieutenant, the rumors said, had been downed by some sort of man-child and a bloodthirsty she-tark. And the Chief… well, the nonsense that was whispered about his unlikely end wasn't worth hearing, it couldn't possibly be true. Not that Shârkglub would shed any tears over wraiths come and gone. He had always despised them, though he had never been afraid of them. In fact, he secretly snickered at the news. Then he snarled when he heard that the northern wraith had been called south. He'd particularly hated Khâmul, and would not be glad at all to see him strut about as chief Nazgûl now.

        All that was nearly a fortnight ago. Before he knew anything. Before the secrets he'd never known he had were laid bare in the darkness.

        He'd expected that this fire sorcerer would be trouble. Once they'd torn the last of those grey rags from him—had to force his lads at knife-point to do it, too, for the woven stuff was Elvish make and stung their fingers like nettles—Shârkglub had seen that his new captive was already pocked with holes, more than most Uruks could bear and still be upright. He'll be the devil to break, the Pit Chief thought, as he counted broken-off arrowheads still imbedded in flesh, and too many other marks to number, and him standing there with a stinking smirk on his wrinkled face, like he'd come to his own birthday party. Shârkglub had felt the first of many shudders at that moment.

       They rushed past the phase of light and slow, for the Mouth was there, breathing down their necks, pushing, pushing. Harder, harder, he hissed. Have no restraint—this one is far stronger than he appears. The Mouth screeched nonsense like imperative and critical, spare him nothing, meaningless commands like no respite, not for a moment. The High Ones were always saying things like that; every secret was imperative, and no captive must ever be given a moment's respite. Shârkglub had heard it all before, a thousand on a thousand times. He would go about his work the same as he always had, coldly and relentlessly.

        But from the start, when the Mouth was gone back upstairs and Shârkglub returned to the task at hand, it was clear this one was different from any captive—from any creature—he had ever met face to face. He felt different, for one thing. Maybe the rest of his boys had no sense of such things, but Shârkglub did. This old man was no Elf—he had none of their blood stink, nor that eerie bluish shimmer that hung about them. But he was no Man, that was certain. No human, not even one of the old ones, from long ago, was like this captive. The shine that hovered about him was not Elf-like—it was harder to catch sight of, and hurt more when you did glimpse it, like the glitter of a deadly blade that reflected the burning stars.

        He did things no other captive ever did. He sang, for one thing—started it even as the High Nazgûl swept out the door. Shârkglub saw how the wraith stiffened and paused at the sound, looking back over one shoulder, then hissed and continued on his way. The first song was some sort of nonsense in the Common Tongue, all about water, as if in celebration of the rain that had just drenched him. The old man had no real voice for song—another sign he was no Elf. But the doggerel stuck in Shârkglub's ear like a buzzing fly; he couldn't shake it, days later.

     Sing hey! For the bath at the close of day
     that washes the weary mud away!
     A loon is he that will not sing;
     O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

     O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
     and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
     but better than rain or rippling streams
     is Water Hot that smokes and steams…

       The water song enraged the Pit Orcs, and Shârkglub's lads needed no orders to get about their business without hesitation. Tried to thrash the music from him—to no avail, for it was the first of many he sang: songs of walking, of flowers, or of horses, of legendary lovers and fast friends, in Westron and Dwarvish and Rohirrhic and other tongues they'd never heard. Worst were the wretched Elvish tunes, of glimmering star and branching tree and the silver of moonlight on wave, with fell words that made the Orcs growl with hatred.

       Then there was his laughter. Shârkglub had heard other prisoners laugh like that—the sort of shaken-fist, 'to-the-Void-with-you' laugh full of tenacious but hopeless defiance. But at times this one laughed with what sounded like—felt like—real amusement, as if he truly found the whole miserable situation somehow funny. The laughter stopped them cold, before they learned to gag his mouth, good and tight.

       But gagged, he still made muffled noises—wordless songs, deep slow music that thrummed their bones, made them grind their teeth. Shârkglub would have thought the old man was mad, but for looking in his penetrating eyes, when he couldn't avoid it. There was no madness there, but something else, like that glitter about him… something terrifying. Those eyes pierced deep—too deep. None of them could bear it, even the knowledge that behind the black cloth they bound beneath his brows, those fierce eyes lurked, waiting. Shârkglub held off just two days before he spoke to the Mouth about it.

       All that matters to the Eye is that he has tongue left to speak, and the wits to form words, the Mouth replied. The High Master gives you leave to do whatever else you like to him. And one, two, that part of the problem was solved. Or so Shârkglub thought.

        They proceeded methodically and thoroughly. There were a thousand ways to make a body feel misery: on the surface; in the bones and joints; with fire and ice; deep in the core of the flesh. And another thousand ways to break the spirit: humiliation, horror, all manner of violation. All this they did, and nothing changed—nothing but the captive's outward appearance, which deteriorated steadily. Every day the Mouth would come with two-dozen guards in tow, and the captive would be escorted up the stairs. The first time, the Pit boys gloated and laid bets on how quick the sorcerer's secrets would spill, now that the Highest Boss Himself was plying the questions. Shârkglub said nothing. The maggots gaped when the captive was brought back, with orders from the Mouth: you fools—try harder!

         And they did try, ever harder. But the insidious music continued, and the stubborn laughter, and Shârkglub knew they were failing. He had a feeling they would not succeed no matter how long they went at it… years, decades… it wouldn't matter. For the Mouth had been right about one thing: this one was far stronger than he looked. He couldn't shake the odd notion that this captive was allowing them to do what they did—that he could have incinerated them all if he chose to. But he didn't choose to… and that made Shârkglub very uneasy.

        Strangely, Shârkglub found himself wondering what this captive was thinking... and stranger still, the Orc began to wonder what the old fool was feeling. He'd never wondered anything like that about any other captive before, not once. The Pit Chief knew such thoughts could drive a Pit Orc toward pity, which led to madness; he'd seen it before. Was he going mad, after all these years, always so good at his job, the best of them all? It made him anxious, and it was not a feeling he liked one bit.

         And as each dark new day in Lugbûrz dawned, the Mouth insisted that time was running out, that events were moving swiftly, and this one's vital secrets must be revealed at once.

         It is up to you to crack his resolve, the Mouth screeched, or you will answer to the Eye yourselves.

         Whether the lads were afraid of the consequences of failure, or whether the uncanny music and gutteral laughter despite the gag and the memory of his blazing eyes did it, or that they had finally learned to sense how this one was different, Shârkglub never knew for certain. All he knew was that as every new day came a few more of his boys hung back, reluctant to join in. It mattered not how the Pit Chief stamped and threatened; the maggots were unwilling to approach the captive. Shârkglub had to put his own back into it, dirty his hands with tasks he'd not had to do in years.

          Eleven long nights and ten endless days went by—short enough, as time in Lugbûrz's Pit could be measured. But it seemed an eternity to Shârkglub—one continuous struggle for control he suspected he would never have. Finally, at the dawn of the eleventh day, the Pit Chief snarled and dismissed the lot of them as useless and stomped alone to the cell where they kept him locked away. He didn't need any of those maggots. He was more than capable of dealing with this one by himself.

          Shârkglub found him hanging in his chains, apparently senseless—or maybe sleeping, if anyone could truly sleep in such a position. The Pit Chief himself had just come from sleep, in fact, and left the captive in the tender care of the only one of his boys who hadn't lost his nerve—Nagrat, the Second Chief, who was as loyal to his work, nearly as tough and almost as old as Shârkglub himself.

        The Orc gazed at the dangling figure, chains stretched taut and threaded through rings bolted to the ceiling. The reek of burned flesh was strong; the gag was charred and had fallen away, the fabric in cinders on the floor. Nagrat must have lost his temper, he thought. He looked much worse than when he'd arrived in Lugbûrz. But Shârkglub stared up at him with gnawing apprehension, the source of which was—must be—the hard truth that despite all that they had done, this one had, in fact, given them nothing. This one was still unbroken.

         Or, perhaps, a voice whispered in the Orc's troubled head, it is the dream that disturbs you so.

         Shârkglub often had vague dreams of murky, unfamiliar places—sights he was quite certain he had never seen in waking life. He had dreamed as long as he could remember. Not that he had ever shared that fact with anyone—for no other Orc dreamed, or if they did, they did not admit it. Shârkglub attached no meaning to his strange night journeys to lapping waters under velvet black skies sprinkled with gleaming stars. The dreams simply happened, as they always had, just as he always awakened from them with a hollow place in the pit of his gut… like the emptiness he felt when a comrade he'd come to trust was felled in battle: a faint, unexplainable yearning. Emptiness… Yearning… Those were not feelings he was willing to claim. They shamed him—made him feel weak—and he would have flogged anyone who called him weak or hollow.

        But since this captive arrived in Lugbûrz, the Pit Orc's dreams had changed. For the first time, the filmy images were vivid and clear. The sights and scents seemed almost real. And Shârkglub had a growing awareness that he'd been hearing things, too. A voice, he thought, someone speaking, from behind his shoulder… If words had been spoken, Shârkglub had not heard them… or had not understood… or simply could not recall them. He was deeply troubled, and a part of him wondered if he were going mad. It had not occurred to him to connect the arrival of the prisoner with the alteration in his night journeys—not until this morning.

        This morning, the Orc woke in a sweat, his heart thumping inside him as the dream—the nightmare, really—clung to him. Slowly the images faded, the pleasant scent of the light wind off the waters dissipated and the usual rank odor of the Pits returned. The voice he had heard at his back echoed, even as all other traces of the dream were gone. He could not place the voice, yet it was somehow familiar… He scowled. What was this about? Was the old fire sorcerer magicking him somehow? Casting a spell, designed to weaken him?

        Shârkglub looked up. His hands closed in fists as he glared at this helpless yet strangely powerful enemy, wondering how he might find and overcome his hidden strength.

        The captive groaned. The chains grated and creaked as the strained muscles in his arms and shoulders jerked in spasms. Shârkglub waited quietly, his hand falling to the club at his belt. Gradually the prisoner regained consciousness. He shuddered and groaned again. The Pit Chief didn't move. Finally, the captive raised his head and turned his face—what was left of it—toward where Shârkglub stood, still as stone. Then, the sorcerer spoke—not a song, or a nonsensical rhyme, but actual words—for the first time.

        "Shârkglub," he whispered.

         The Orc stiffened, and a shiver went through him. None of his boys had ever used his name in front of the captive! How did he know it? Had that damned idiot, the Mouth, let it slip? Had Nagrat told him?

        "What you see… At night… That place you visit in your dreams…"

        Shârkglub sucked in a sharp, choking breath. He knows! How…!  It did not seem possible! There is some devilry here, some spell he has cast on me… But he had been dreaming always, ages before this one came into his Pit… Yet somehow he knew… Ei! It must have been his voice! He was there, behind you… He sees what you see… Has he slipped into your mind, Shârkglub? Then he caught himself and snarled. Fool! Utter nonsense! No one can slip into another's mind—only a High Master can do that… He berated himself, called himself a weak, foolish old Orc. He has no power over you… He is yours to do with what you will…  But his heart was clamoring inside his chest, and his mouth was dry with terror as the captive continued.

        "Deep, clear waters… High cliffs, the distant rush of crystalline falls… The Lake's smooth surface reflecting the oldest of the Stars…" The sorcerer went on in his hoarse whisper. "It was called Cuiviénen…  The Waters of Awakening…"

        Shârkglub's heart nearly burst with fear—someone might hear him!—but in the same moment, his fury exploded—he has no right to know such things about me! With a strangled cry he rushed forward and swung his club with as much strength as was in his thick arms and broad shoulders. Again and again he hammered, as hard as he could. He cared not what damage he inflicted. All he cared was that the voice that had named his deepest, oldest secret—the secret so old he had long ago forgotten it, the secret he himself was only just beginning to realize—be stilled.

         "Who told you my name, you dunghill maggot?" the Orc roared. "You filthy snaga, you lie, you lie! Orcs never dream... Liar, liar!"

          The room echoed with shouts of rage, with thuds and grunts that continued until Shârkglub's hot anger was spent. The Orc stood panting, his club still clutched in his fist. He looked up.

         The captive was silent, his head lolling forward. Anxiously, Shârkglub prodded him with the end of the club. He did not move. The Orc waited until the prisoner drew in a ragged breath, and then released his own breath that he'd been holding. Stupid maggot! he said to himself as his pounding heartbeat gradually slowed. Got to be more careful… Almost as bad a mistake as allowing a captive to get under your skin was to accidentally kill one that still had secrets to spill. He watched for long enough to feel certain that the old fool wasn't going to die just yet, then he snarled and left.

         They didn't wait long to drag the captive upstairs. The Chief Pit Orc watched them take him in silence, glancing at the dark passageway that led to the upper chambers. And he waited. And waited. And found himself feeling a sort of vague anxiety, something like… well, something like worry, as time went on and on. The prisoner's absence from the Pits seemed much longer this time. Shârkglub burned with curiosity to know what might be occurring upstairs. He found himself having strange thoughts—thoughts that, if they were known by the Masters and High Ones above, would be called treasonous. Like wishing the prisoner would keep holding out—just to spite them, if for no other reason. Watch yourself, Shârkglub! Sedition, they'd call stuff like that, right certain… But when it came down to it, why should he—or any Orc, for that matter—want the same things the High Ones wanted? No gain for me in it… What was in it for him, if they cracked the Old Fool's resolve? Nothing. Indeed, it would deprive him of the only truly interesting thing that had happened to him in a very long time—was vexing and irritating, yes, but certainly kept his attention.

         Finally, he heard a shuffling and thudding sound. Sharkglub stepped back into the shadows to watch as they dragged him and locked him into his cell again. The Pit Chief's gaze narrowed; the captive looked even worse, if possible. The Orc thought that what life was left in him must finally be leaking away. His shimmer seemed dull now. He was weakening. But had they broken him? He doubted it. That ugly Mouth would have come bragging, we'd have heard their triumphant gloating…

         He waited for the Mouth's guards to clear out. Then he looked in both directions, made sure no one saw him, and slipped inside the cell.

          He looked up at the slowly swaying figure hanging from the ceiling. Shârkglub watched him closely—yes, he was still breathing. Indeed, impossible as it seemed, he was awake. The chains rattled and creaked as he tried to shift, to ease the pressure on his ragged wrists. And once more, the prisoner's head moved. Dark as it was in that cell, it was not so dark that the Orc couldn't see him turn toward him again.

        "Shârkglub…"

        The Orc snarled as he began to pace in a circle around the prisoner.

        "Tell me, Old Man. Tell me something…"

        "I will answer, if I can…"

        The Chief Pit Orc stopped pacing and looked up.

        "Have you spilled your secrets yet—upstairs?"

        "No…"

        "Are you spinning tales for them?" he snarled. "Telling lies to vex and distract them?"

        "N…no," the weak answer came. "To them—to Him—I say nothing…"

        Shârkglub lunged forward and grabbed the captive about his dangling knees, and yanked down hard, jerking his tattered wrists hard against the shackles. The prisoner gasped.

        "Then why do you lie to me?" the Orc shouted, his voice full of something more like anguish than rage.

         His voice was a coarse rasp when he replied. "I do not lie…"

        "Yes, you do! You lie!" the Orc cried as he yanked on him again.

        "Ahhh!… N…no!… I read in your thoughts that you know I speak truly… I see who you are, Shârkglub…who you once were…"

       The Pit Chief released him and spat on the floor. "'See'?" he laughed harshly. "Haven't you forgotten something, Old Fool?"

       "There are many ways of seeing," the captive whispered. "And my sight tells me that you are well named…'Shârku,' Old One…  You are, indeed, an 'Elder'… Eldar…"

        A howl began building in Shârkglub's throat as the prisoner whispered the last few words.

          "…You were… you are of the Eldest Race… an Elf, taken by the Old Master…  by The Ancient One, The Dark Hunter… You were imprisoned deep underground, tormented, changed… Almost wholly ruined… But not completely… Your race, all your people are descendants of those like you…"

          Shârkglub's howl became a frenzied scream. He ran to the wall of the chamber and plucked a many-thonged lash from a hook. It was still stiff with caked blood from the last time he had used it. The Orc turned, and with a growl he began to swing. He could hardly focus through the red wrath that possessed him. He panted as he put all his strength into it—ten strokes, fifteen…

           Then the Chief Pit Orc's throat tightened, and another howl emerged from him. But this time the sound was a wail of pain that bubbled up from somewhere so deep in him, it had not been roused in thousands of years. He raised his arm one last time; his hand trembled. Shârkglub tossed the whip to the floor and with a final shrill cry he fled from the room.

           Dully, Shârkglub observed that the Mouth came himself this time with his escort of guards, not long after, to drag the captive upstairs. Twice in a few hours… They must be frantic for whatever this one's hiding from them… The Pit Chief watched his fellow Orcs with hooded eyes, noting how they moved, sniffing the air for that peculiar scent that always raised the hair on the back of his neck, squinting for any glimpse of bluish light… Pahh! Fool, he is a foul liar! It cannot be as he says... When the captive was brought back yet again, Shârkglub could tell by the frustrated manner and curses of the Mouth that another session of questioning by the Eye had been rebuffed. Somehow, despite the old man's weakness, he had still defied them.

            The Mouth snarled some nonsense; Shârkglub hardly paid attention. He stood in the shadows, waiting for the hall to clear out, staring at the closed doorway to the captive's chamber, filled with longing and dread. He feared more than almost anything to open that door and enter. But he was drawn there, as inexorably as a moth is drawn to the flame that must burn it.

            He noticed that the maggots' seemed agitated by the Mouth's pronouncement. When he finally forced himself to listen, his eyes flew open. The War was coming to the last push, and everyone, even the Pit Orcs, were to be pressed into battle duty two days' march to the north, at Udûn and beyond. No captives were to be left alive. All remaining throats were to be slit, before the final march, that very day—save one. One captive was to be spared, and not because the Master was feeling merciful.

            Lugbûrz swarmed with activity, above ground and below, and Shârkglub's private musings were disrupted for a time. The Pit maggots gurgled with blood-lust as they strode from cell to cell, not bothering to wipe their daggers between uses. The Mouth's messenger came and went three times with instructions. Nagrat was shaken from his sleep, and he and Shârkglub dug through a heap of leftover mailshirts, rusted shields and notched axes, snarling at the battered scraps their boys were to make do with. Hold me a spot near you in line. We Pit rats may as well stand together, he said with a grin as he slapped his second on his shoulder and sent him and the rest of the maggots upstairs.

            The Pits were momentarily quiet. Shârkglub knew he had but a little time before the Mouth's guards would return. He patted his belt; he had two specially chosen items with him. He walked slowly to the door, opened it, and entered. He carefully bolted it behind him.

            The captive was strung up again, but the Orc could tell by his breathing that he was awake—though barely living. The Pit Chief stepped to the center of the chamber and stood below him.

            "All right, then," the Orc said in a low voice. "There's no time left, so give me an answer, and a true one. Who are you? What are you?"

            The chains grated as he shifted. His in-drawn breath was a wheeze.

            "I am… the same… as he you name 'New Master'… save that I oppose him… and all he and his Master stand for…"

            Shârkglub shivered as he tasted the bile rising in his throat. He had suspected it must be so, for how else could this old man have seen into his mind? How could he have successfully turned aside the probings of the Eye? No one could do that… except perhaps someone who was the same sort of creature as the High Master Himself.

            "Is that how you can…hear my thoughts?" he whispered. "And enter my dreams?"

            The prisoner nodded. "That is my true name: 'he who walks in dreams'…"

            "And what you said, before…"

            "I spoke the truth…"

            "It cannot be true!" Shârkglub cried in a strangled voice. His fists clenched, and by long instinct he lashed out, landing a sharp blow into the captive's midsection. The old man gasped, and the Orc flinched and drew back.

            "You know it is true, in your innermost self," he said hoarsely. "I see it… I can read your heart… "

            "No!" Shârkglub whispered.

            "…Ah, but yes… You believe me… I know you do…"

            "How…how can I believe…" he groaned.

             "Think back… How did you feel, when Angband finally fell… You were there, Shârkglub… You were old, even then… Remember what you secretly felt… "

            "It was so long ago," the Orc muttered. He frowned, staring at his hands—malformed, thickened claws, with sharp, heavy nails, strong enough to tear flesh from a victim… Were these all that remained of the hands of… His eyes closed as he shuddered. "I felt afraid… and… and relieved…" he whispered.

            "Yes, relief… the same relief that I felt… I was there, you see, standing on the other side, with the forces of Valinor…"

            The Orc gaped at him. He had not spoken to anyone of that battle for uncounted years. None of the current lads would have believed that even 'Shârkglub' was that old.

            The Pit Chief suddenly felt dizzy. He was overwhelmed, with feelings he could not name, with memories, with questions… So many questions! His sanity, his life, his entire world had just crumbled into dust. It was too much to think about, too much to sort out. He latched onto one question—a simple one—that nagged him.

            "Did you conjure the rain to fall?"

            The prisoner laughed hoarsely—more of a wheeze than a laugh. "Nay… That was done on my behalf… By an old friend, one far more powerful than I… the Master of Waters… wished to send me a sign of encouragement, and a brief respite from the dust… Though, I admit, I added a touch of my own… that bit of lightning..." The captive's strained smile faded, and he paused for a moment before going on in a rasping, urgent voice. "Shârkglub, we have too little time to say all there is to say… But know this: if you hold on to what you have learned to be the truth, I will stand by you, when the time comes. I will plead your case…"

            "What… what do you mean?" the Orc whispered, as his throat thickened.

            "When you awaken in the Halls of Doom, I will be there, at your side… to speak on your behalf... You have done much evil in your long years, but you were not always so…. You should not be called to judgment for what you were forced to become…"

            Shârkglub clutched the sides of his head with his claws as he swayed unsteadily. His old eyes were stinging, and his face was hot and wet. He thought his head might burst with confusion. This captive, on whom he had mercilessly inflicted every sort of brutal punishment, would stand by him? In some place he knew not, but feared greatly—Doom Halls? What did it mean? But the sorcerer was speaking again.

            "I cannot speak for your entire people—only for you. Ah, if you knew how long I have wondered, how many eyes I have searched… how many times I have tried to reach… Shârkglub, you have answered a question that has burned within me for age upon age... You know who you are, now… The rest is up to you. Do not fail me… Do not fail yourself."

            Sharkglub's voice wavered. "What are you saying, sorcerer?"

            "In the conflict to come, hold onto this memory. Hold fast to your true self, whatever the cost."

            The Orc bristled, suddenly his familiar self again. "You are telling me to be a bloody traitor?" he snarled.

            "I would say instead, try not to be such a good soldier…"

            Shârkglub frowned, awhirl with doubt. He couldn't possibly do what this sorcerer was asking, and turn on his own lads, his boys, the only blood-folk he'd ever known… Could he? Argh! There was no time for all this confusion. He had to finish what he'd come for.

            "Listen, Dream Invader," he growled, as he reached for his belt. He brought his hands up into the dim torchlight. In his right hand he gripped a dagger—a clean one. In his left, he held a flask of water. "I came here to do one of two things. Have they told you what they have in store for you?"

            The captive sighed as he nodded. "Alas, yes… Indeed, they enjoyed gloating about it…"

            "Then choose." The Orc raised his hands.

            The shadow of a grim smile flickered over his ruined lips. "Now it is you who seems to have forgotten something, Shârkglub..."

            The Orc grunted. "Very well. Either I end it quick for you, here and now." He unsheathed the knife, and the metal sang with its harsh note. "Or, I give you this water…" and as he shook the flask, the faint sound of liquid sloshing could be heard. "For your throat, which I know is as parched as the Ash Plains of Gorgoroth… to help you last a bit longer."

            The prisoner hesitated. Then he whispered. "I may come to rue my choice, but I have waited too long for what I hope shall soon happen… I would not miss it now, at the end… And if all hope fails, then my end will be…notable, at least…"

            Shârkglub shivered again; he was not surprised by the old man's choice, and he wondered what that said about him. He sheathed his knife and stepped toward the wall, to a geared wheel on which the chains were wound. Releasing the thick wooden peg that held it, he turned the wheel, loosening the chains and lowering the captive. He could no longer stand; the Orc lowered him until he was slumped upon the floor.

            The Chief Pit Orc of Lugbûrz knelt, wrapped one arm about his victim's shoulders and helped him drink. He knew without looking that the old man's hands were useless to hold the flask himself. The Orc stared at his own hands, as if they belonged to another. In all his long life—in all the life he could recall—he had never used those hands to do anything… like this.

             It took time for the old man to drink, for his mouth was torn, his tongue and lips were swollen, and his throat was exceedingly dry. Shârkglub cradled his head, offering the flask or holding it patiently as he struggled to swallow. When he was finally finished, the Orc went back to the wheel and unwound the chains completely.

            "Take what rest you can," he said gruffly. "Go on—lie down, you old fool. Tell 'em, when they come, that you magicked the peg out of the wheel."

            The captive nodded. With a great sigh he began to lower himself to the floor. Then he stopped, swaying as he propped himself on one elbow.

            "Wait," he said. "I would like to thank you, Shârkglub…"

            The Orc crossed to the center of the room and stared down. "Thank me, did you say?" he spat. "Are you raving, Greybeard? After everything I did, the way we treated you…"

            The captive tilted his head upward. "You have given me a great gift, Shârkglub. You see, I knew you, from that first moment... I saw at once who and what you really were… Your presence gave me something vital: something on which to focus, a problem to solve… a…a riddle! Yes, a riddle in the dark…" The strange captive chuckled hoarsely, as if at some private joke.  "And Sauron's command that you attack my flesh had quite the opposite effect that he intended. My outward thoughts—those he might most easily penetrate—were directed right here, upon this… " He shrugged his arms; the chains jangled. "You gave me good reason to think of nothing but…these unpleasant physical circumstances, and hide away my thoughts of… other things...far more important things… And he was distracted, as well," the sorcerer smiled weakly. "You helped me achieve my true goal: to keep the Eye upon me… diverted from what I would not have him see…"

            Shârkglub's claws twitched at his side, and he gazed at the closed door, as if trying to see beyond it. He had never served any of his masters for a reason other than fear, and hidden behind that fear, from hatred. The New Master was no exception. He hated Him; he always had. He suspected every Orc would say the same, if they dared. But to admit in the depths of his heart that he hated the Master was one thing; to act an outright traitor was something else. What if he were caught!

           His eyes flickered downward. And yet… This one… He said he opposed the New Master. And he seemed pleased, despite a ruined body, at how things were turning out. He'd managed, despite ten days and eleven nights of unrelenting hell, to keep his secrets hidden, whatever they were. Shârkglub wasn't sure what was true anymore—except that the feeling he felt slowly rising in his aged breast for this mind-reading, dream-invading, infuriating, unbreakable captive was nothing like what he felt for the Highest Boss.

            What was done was done. He would be labeled a traitor simply for dreaming of another place, of another time. He would surely be put to death for offering water to an enemy. The Final Battle was imminent. It would all be over soon—one way or another. He looked down, wondering if the captive could divine the future.

            "What will happen now, sorcerer?"

            "I truly do not know, Shârkglub. But my heart tells me that your long, long years of suffering, and my few days of it, will end soon. Whatever happens next, I shall not cling to this cloak that shrouds me for much longer."

            The captive's face once more shifted, and Shârkglub saw what passed for a smile on his battered features for the last time.

            "Look sharp, my friend. As another said long ago, Aurë entuluva!* And if hope holds, you and I may yet live to see it. Now, you'd better get out of here, before that vile Mouth and his thugs return to fetch me."

              The Pit Chief's old eyes stung again—the captive had called him friend. And that snippet of ancient Elvish—he had heard it, long ago. He knew what the words meant, and for the first time in many thousands of years, the phrase struck him differently. Something squeezed his old Orc heart, and his throat felt tight. Even if he had known what to say, he could not have spoken at that moment. He bowed stiffly before he turned and silently marched from the room.

            Shârkglub stood outside the cell, leaning on the heavy door. With the practice of millennia, he forced his face back into an unreadable mask and hid the riot of feelings that welled up from within. He took a deep breath and released it. His mind was racing as he shuffled away.

            Taking the uneven stone steps two at a time, Shârkglub hurried up the stairs to find his old friend Nagrat. Well, my lads, old Shârkglub will be marching northward with the Pit Rats, he thought. But once we reach the Great Gate, I might have other duties… Notable end? Maybe… and maybe not…


*"Aurë entuluva!" "Day will come again!" Spoken by Hurin before he was taken captive by the servants of Morgoth in the First Age.


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.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

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Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

A Bit of Rope

ziggy - 07 Aug 11 - 5:19 AM

Ch. 52: Secrets In The Dark

I found this chaper immensley moving, Aiwendiel. The movement from the cold and calcuating torturer to the awakening of that memory and the kindness, the old fire in Sharkglub's spirit is a journey of tremendous imagination and vision. It could stand alone as a piece of fiction, worthy of any award. The control is in the intense focus on Sharkglub's pov and the gradual fear and shame and resentment. Just wonderful. And Gandalf's wonderful resistance and the reason he is able to resist makes such sense. You built up the sense of increasing desparation in the enemy too - and the contempt Shakglub has is enteriley in keeping with the truth about him (trying hard NOT to give spoilers). Just fabulous.

A Bit of Rope

Larner - 06 Sep 11 - 3:04 AM

Ch. 52: Secrets In The Dark

Hmm.  It appears that someone is awakening, and now not unwillingly.  I'm glad Gandalf was allowed this distraction--now to see the Elf awaken once more!


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