It was the pig that let the secret out, surprised by the noise they made as they came through. A rustling mad scramble as it shot through the undergrowth, and Mushog and Kurbag immediately took off after it. Bragdagash held up his hand, stopping the line, and soon after they heard the glad whoops of the two hunters not far away. When the whooping didn't die down he turned to the rest of the band, who looked at him expectantly. "Right then, let's go see."
The pig wasn't dead. Running from the two Orcs it had tumbled down into a little ditch and was running back and forth, squealing its head off. The others arrived soon after to see the two of them having a merry time of it. They had disarmed themselves in a mockery of fairness and were trying to catch the terrified animal barehanded. Mushog was walking toward the pig in a bowlegged fashion, hands spread and out to the sides, while Kurbag stood behind him with his knees and back bent forward and his hands on his thighs, looking, Nazluk sarcastically remarked, like he was attempting to give birth.
"You'd better catch it, lads – that's our dinner you're playing with!" called Rukshash.
"You just let us take care of it," said Mushog. Just then the pig, which he had been backing into one earthen end of the ditch, made a break for it: it shot right between his legs before he could make half a grab, and veered dramatically to avoid Kurbag. He dived sidelong but the hind trotters flashed by mere inches from his reaching fingers.
"How's the dirt taste, Kurby?" the watching Orcs called down amid hoots at the the sudden dustbath he had taken. Kurbag didn't get a chance to respond. Mushog, running back after the pig, stumbled over him and went sprawling. The spectators roared. Cursing and laughing at the same time, both Orcs scrabbled up and after their frantic prey.
They were several minutes at wearing it down. The others lowered the packs they carried and found comfortable vantage points from which to watch and to mock or cheer, sometimes for the two hunters, sometimes for the pig and its ingenious maneuvers at escape. They could afford to cheer for the pig. The end result was preordained. There was no way for it to get out of the ditch with the rest of them ranged over it, and it was tiring fast.
Maevyn hated what Kurbag and Mushog were doing. This was not the way animals had been slaughtered in her old village, this cruel game of chase and terror. At the same time, the Orcs' excitement was infectious. She forced herself to look away from what was going on. "Why do they have to be so mean," she muttered to Leni.
"It will be over soon enough," said Leni faintly.
Maevyn stared at her. "You look sick…"
"I cannot stand the sound of it." Leni's fingers were hooked in the straps holding the pack of eagle eggs on her shoulders. Her knuckles were white as a fish's belly. This was one occasion on which Maevyn sympathized with her. The pig's squeals were nauseating but the Orcs only seemed to find them funny.
For Mushog, it stopped being sport when the animal bit his hand. "Son of a bitch!" he swore, snatching it back. With the sight of blood came pain, and with pain, anger. "Throw me my dagger!"
Grushak, who was closest to the discarded weapons, snorted in response. "You wanted to catch it. Take it down first…"
"Motherfucking—you whoreson bastard, Grushak…!"
A shout from behind cut off Mushog's spluttering. Kurbag had finally made a successful tackle: The pig flopped forward, squealing, as he attempting to claw his way up the animal, his sharp nails gouging the squirming flesh. Blood bloomed bright and shining on the pig's sides. It writhed in terror. With an impossible wriggle it managed to pull out of Kurbag's grip, only for Mushog to throw himself on it. Coming down hard on its back, he caught the pig's thick neck in a stranglehold, straddled the thick body with his legs. As it tried to barrel forward he hooked his heels under its lower belly, jerking his upper torso hard to throw it off-balance. It staggered a few steps before finally collapsing beneath him. Though it continued to struggle, Mushog only tightened his headlock until the pig was wheezing beneath him, the eyes rolling in its head, the bristled sides heaving in terror and exhaustion. Then, in a hoarse triumphant voice, Mushog called for the knife again.
The pig's death was neither fast nor clean. It died drowning in its own blood, amid the laughter and the stink of Orcs. Standing free of the feebly kicking hooves, Mushog accepted the praise that was his due: a combination of the mocking and also the genuine, since no one was averse to a good pork dinner. While some of the smaller Orcs gathered to quickly carve up the carcass, he and Kurbag clambered up out of the ditch.
"Here now…Mushog…pour some of that on your hand, like." Rukshash handed him a skin of Orc draught.
"Waste of drink," complained Mushog, who put it to his mouth instead.
"Not a waste if it keeps you from blood poisoning. But do as you please…"
Down in the ditch, Grymawk had noticed something. "Here, Shrah'rar, take a look at this. This is a funny little nick, isn't it?"
Shrah'rar smiled weirdly and fingered the dead pig's ear. "That's not just any nick. That's a farmer's notch. Men make them to sort their stock out from others."
"Oh? So it's feral then? Not a wild pig?"
He shook his head. "Nar, this sort of mark don't happen on its own. See how there are two of them? Clean straight cuts with a knife. It may be out in the woods now, but before that it came from a Man-place…" Looking up from the scarred flesh, he smiled at Grymawk meaningfully. The other Orc's eyes widened as a similar smile appeared on his own face.
Shrah'rar's assessment passed quickly among the others, stirring up much excitement. Men, and a chance for sport! Now that they knew that there was a village or some other place of human habitation nearby, the prospect of a raid was almost tangible. Bragdagash refused to confirm that this was why he'd led them out here, but the grin on his face made him decidedly unconvincing, and when they came to the place where the earth fell away he made no further attempt at circumspection.
He did hold firm in one respect: he would not be picking his scouts that night. "We've gone a good stretch these past few days. It won't kill us to have an evening and good food and a night's rest for ourselves. I'll pick the two I want tomorrow. If this village that you're so excited about is here tonight, it will still be here tomorrow."
As thrilled as the Orcs were, Leni and Maevyn were considerably less so. Maevyn had not immediately known the cause for their good mood, though stray words in Orkish and some in Westron as well had filled her with forboding. It was Leni who confirmed her worst imaginings.
They think there is a village nearby…the opportunity to raid…
It was the first that Maevyn had been near any kind of civilization since she had been taken from her own home, bruised and bound on Grushak's back. A village, where people lived, where men and women worked and loved, and children played—and then at Leni's dull pronouncement of the word "raid" those idyllic scenes were crowded out by memories of her own home: ruined huts and blood and the corpses of men and beasts.
"No!" she said, horrified by the idea of this happening to other people, folk like her own folk. "They can't…"
"They can," said Leni wearily. "Come. We must not fall behind in our tasks. They will be in high spirits tonight."
She was right. Bragdagash's band had abdicated their usual minimal efforts at setting up for the night, essentially dropping their packs and bundles where they stood. It fell to the two girls to make some semblance of a camp, and then there was kindling to be found, and a fire to be built, and food to be prepared, with Orcs underfoot and in the way all the while. Rather than disbursing until dinner proper, as was their usual custom, excitement and anticipation was keeping the entire band gathered together in animated conversation, and from time to time interrupting Maevyn or Leni with this or that order, making it very difficult for the two of them to accomplish their usual tasks, and impossible for them to talk in private.
But not impossible to think. Maevyn's mind was racing a mile a minute, and it was only fortunate that Grushak, too, was otherwise occupied and not inclined to put his pupil through her usual drills. If he had done so, there was no telling what might have come out of her mouth.
It was some hours later, when talk and eating had given way to drinking and crude song among the Orcs, and Leni was setting out the eagle eggs to be turned on the soft bed furs, that Maevyn approached her. Face flushed with more than the heat of the fire, she said, "We could warn them."
"What?" said Leni.
"I was thinking. When they're asleep. It'll be soon enough: they're tired out from walking all day and from talking and talking like they've been doing all night. They wouldn't know we were gone, not till it's too late."
"But how would we find it? We do not even know where it is."
"Bragdagash said it's sort of north, north-east? If we left soon, and had the night for our start…"
Leni sighed. "Maevyn. Listen to me. Suppose that we made it past Pryszrim. He is on watch tonight. It is not impossible: he is not the best of guards. What then? We would be stumbling blind in the darkness, and morning would reveal our absence." Maevyn opened her mouth but Leni pushed on. "I know what you will say: Bragdagash has said that it should only be a half-day's journey from us. That is as Orcs reckon it. We are not as fast as they, nor so tireless, nor do we know where it is, not truly. We would not reach anyone and we would only be found out. Do you understand what I am saying? We would accomplish nothing, and we would be beaten for trying, if not worse."
Everything she said was true, and Maevyn knew it. She felt helpless and angry. Disappointment made her savage in response. "You'd be beaten, maybe. They'd just kill me. 'S'not like anything bad would happen to you. You don't care, that's all! Just so long as you don't get hurt, you don't care. People are gonna die, and you're too scared to do anything because you might get in trouble. You're so selfish, Leni."
Leni stared at her, her whole body rigid, her blue eyes glittering. Maevyn thought it was with the approach of tears, but then she realized that the wide hurt eyes were also filled with anger. Before she had a chance to process that—Leni was never angry—the Elf girl looked away from her. She turned one of the eggs, then another. "You are saying that because you are frustrated," she said in a tight, husky voice as she turned the third. "You will know otherwise when you are thinking clearly. I am a coward, it is true, and afraid of many things. But you are wrong to say I do not care."
It was the last they were to speak with one another that night.
Later, when the entire Orc band slept with the exception of Pryszrim, keeping his solitary vigil somewhere through the trees, Maevyn lay awake in the dark. She lay stiff and silent, listening to Leni's breathing beside her and knowing that the Elf was no more asleep than she herself. But Leni only lay silently, feeling Maevyn's wakefulness beside her. The better part of an hour passed by slowly in this fashion.
Finally, Maevyn pushed aside the part of the fur that covered her. Leni said nothing, did nothing, as the younger girl stood and padded away.
Hrahragh's eyes slid open. It was morning: gray, damp, and he had to piss. Mouth gaping in a silent, toothy yawn, he navigated the bodies of his sleeping comrades with an ease born of longstanding habit and his own casual poise. The child curled in a ball at the edge of camp, though, was a surprise, and he had to execute an uncharacteristically awkward hop-skip to avoid tripping over her.
Stopping, the Uruk stared down at the girl in baffled silence before glancing at the furs at the other end of camp where the girl normally slept with her little Elf friend. The Elf was their only occupant at that moment. The human girl, when Hrahragh looked again, remained an irrefutable lump at his feet.
He cocked his head and, after brief study, gave her a nudge with his foot. Shuddering, she uncurled and stared uncomprehendingly at his legs before realizing what stood over her.
"Why sleep here?" he asked her as she clambered stiffly to her feet.
Only very small, this spindly thing with the ragged hair over her eyes, and she looked at him with a mixture of resentment and defiance wholly unwarranted by the question. She also looked distinctly sheepish. She shrugged.
"So go," he said. "Almost stepped on you." He watched her as she picked her way unsteadily through the sleeping camp and thought, not for the first time, what a weird little tark she was.
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.