23. Under An Influence
Bragdagash chose Shrah'rar and Kurbag for his scouts, sending them ahead to establish where the village was, its size, and what, if any, its defenses might be. He did so over breakfast. They returned in the afternoon, sooner than expected: what they had to report was good and he gave the word that they were to set off at once. They would reach the village late that evening, and the raid would take place at night. Mutters of approval greeted this—eager as they were to do some violence, they all liked the sound of an immediate departure. His next decision, though, regarding who was to remain behind, drew protest from one quarter.
"WHAT? Why?" demanded Mushog.
"I think it's because of your hand," Pryszrim volunteered.
He was stating the obvious. Mushog's hand had been sore but essentially functional the previous evening when he showed off around the fire. Now it was puffy and swollen, and evidently quite painful from the way he had complained about it that morning. To hear him now, the pain was nothing: "Fuck that shit! It's fine. See?"
The fist he made hurt just to look at. It was mottled and discolored.
Bragdagash was not convinced. "Don't be a fool. That's your sword hand and you can barely use it. If it drops off that's your own affair, but I'm not bringing you along if you're just going to be useless." He looked around at the others. "Hoi! Sharp now, lads, let's get it together. You've got five minutes."
"Well what about Kurbag? He came back with Shrah'rar! Why should he go straight out again?" Mushog complained. Shrah'rar had been Bragdagash's other pick to remain behind, for that very reason.
The only response was from Kurbag, who glared at his shieldmate. "See if I bring anything back for you," he said pointedly. He didn't stick around for Mushog's response, walking to the center of camp and drawing his sword part-way. It emerged from its scabbard in a smooth clean motion and he pushed it back again, satisfied. Casting his eyes about him, he soon found what he was looking for. "Hey Squeaker! Fetch me two skins of water – I'm thirsty."
The rest of the band, save for Mushog and Shrah'rar, were all preparing to leave; trading jokes, checking their weapons and cinching up whatever light gear they intended to bring along, and giving sharp orders to the two slaves traveling in their company. As Eleluleniel retrieved Kurbag's water for him she found herself crouched almost knee to knee with Maevyn, who was getting beer for some of the snaga Orcs. Eleluleniel looked into her eyes for a moment and saw nothing; the other girl's face might have been a mask for all that it conveyed. Maevyn jumped up again and scurried off while Eleluleniel looked after her.
Sighing, the Elf girl stood as well. Maevyn had said nothing to her, had not even looked at her since she had awakened that morning. Eleluleniel had not been surprised to find her still there. She knew that Maevyn was not foolish, for all of her impetous words.
She was not angry at Maevyn, not anymore. She had been angry the night before, hurt by what the other girl had said, and stung by its unfairness. Now she wasn't angry, only sad, her heart heavy with the sickness she felt when the Orcs went on a raid. It was the same thing Maevyn felt, she knew, and she knew also that it was worse for the other girl, for Maevyn's outrage and grief were fresh, her feelings undulled as yet by routine and the dreary passage of time.
That would change, thought Eleluleniel as Kurbag drank his water. It would have to change if Maevyn was to survive.
Lowering the skin, he breathed out a sigh. "No beer for now. Keep myself sharp for what's coming." She made no reply, knowing that he didn't expect one. It sounded more as if he were talking to himself at that moment anyway. Finishing off the first skin, he pushed it toward her and fastened the other at his side. "Here now, Squeaker. D'you still have any of that cornmeal left?" he asked her. She knew it was because he planned to bring some back after they attacked the village. She opened her mouth to respond but was cut off by Bragdagash's sudden shout:
"All right boys, if you've not had the sense to piss then you'll just have to do it down your trouser leg! Let's move out!"
Kurbag grinned, his eyes flicking toward his chieftain. He touched Eleluleniel's forehead with absent ritual, like a good luck charm, and walked away.
And that was that. Bragdagash and his merry band of marauders departed in pursuit of their favorite pastime of murder, theft and rapine, while Shrah'rar and Mushog remained behind. Mushog, already irritable because of his hand, was sulky and resentful to be left out of the fun, though if truth were told he was long past due for guard duty anyway. "So we get to sit here diddling ourselves for the next few hours, eh?" He looked around their deserted camp with a snort. "Well this is a comfy spot."
"It is nice, isn't it?" said Shrah'rar, willfully misconstruing Mushog's sarcasm. "I'm all up for a rest myself." The snaga-Orc was content to remain behind on this occasion – he'd had all the sun he wanted running reconnaissance with Kurbag and was just as glad not to be marching out again. Shame to miss out on a night raid, of course, but he figured he could live with that.
"Skai. I'm sure you're just as happy to be hiding out here, you little turd. Myself, I was ready for some action." Mushog slid his sword a few inches in and out of its sheath compulsively as he spoke. When Shrah'rar only looked unimpressed Mushog snorted and strode some yards in the direction that the others had taken, stopping with his feet bladed, his broad hands on his hips as he glared into the outlying trees. He snorted again, muttering to himself as he turned and stalked back toward the center of camp. "Fucking typical…leave me behind with the bitches..."
For all his muttering, his words were clearly audible to Shrah'rar. His red eyes narrowed, but he refrained from pointing out that he was neither female nor a dog. Mushog was bigger than him, after all, and cranky. Probably it was best to just keep his mouth shut. "So we're sitting on our arses for a bit," he said instead of maintaining a sensible silence. "It's no great thing. Like I said, I'm looking forward to resting my legs a bit. Been keeping up a hard pace these past two days as well."
"Maybe for a weakling like you." Mushog straightened up, thwacking himself on the chest emphatically. "Me, I can keep it up for twice that time. Three times!"
Shrah'rar looked at him dubiously. He wondered if they were talking about the same thing. Whatever it was they were talking about, he decided it would be wiser to change the subject. "Anyhow, there's nothing says we can't enjoy ourselves in the meantime." He went and picked up his pack, rummaging through its contents for a moment before pulling out a beer skin. "Eh, Mushog? Join me in a skin?"
Mushog glared at him, seemingly intent on scowling forever. Then the corner of his mouth quirked reluctantly. "Oh, what the fuck," he said. "Haven't found a situation yet that drinking didn't improve."
There was a rosy glow in the sky as Maevyn stared down into the valley. Throughout the afternoon, ever since Bragdagash and the others had left, she had kept coming to this spot. Somewhere behind her, she could hear Mushog's loud familiar voice, though whether it was raised in anger or more cheerful discourse she could not have said. So long as it wasn't directed at her she could ignore it, and so she did, staring at the valley, all the way to where the line of the ridge hid its further reaches from view.
That was where the village was, somewhere where the rosy sky gave way to lilac. That was where people were going to die tonight, if they weren't dead already.
She felt like a failure. Only six miles away—that's what Shrah'rar and Kurbag had said. Less than the half-day's journey Bragdagash had thought it would be, for the two Orcs had been there and back again within that time. And she had walked further than that in a day before, on more days than she could count on one hand. Six miles and she could have warned them.
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?
She lowered her head to her knees and sighed. Didn't look up as she felt someone approaching her. She didn't have to look to know who it was.
"There is still bread from yesterday," said Leni. "It is here, if you want it." They were the first words either had spoken to one another that day.
Maevyn took the piece she was given, moving it to and fro in her hands. "It's true, what you said before," she muttered, continuing to stare off into the valley. Looking anywhere but at Leni. "Guess there really wasn't anything we could do." She still didn't entirely believe it, and it wasn't a proper apology, but it was an attempt.
There was a silence that might have been a rebuff before Leni gathered her skirts around and sat near Maevyn. Maevyn shifted a little, not wanting to be touched, but Leni knew by now that she didn't always respond well to such gestures. "How far did you finally go last night?" she asked. Maevyn shrugged. Hands folded in her lap, the Elf said, "It is difficult when we have to resign ourselves. It is very hard. Yet we have little power in this place, and sometimes we must resign ourselves, if it is to be at all endurable. If we are not to go mad."
"I'm mad right now," grumbled Maevyn. "It isn't fair. And next time…next time I will do something, I don't care. Next time…"
"But what will you do that you cannot do now?"
"Something," said Maevyn firmly. "Something, that's all."
"Your twig moved!" Mushog shouted in the background.
"Come you," said Leni. "Let us go sit by the fire. I have the eggs laying there. I do not like to leave them alone for long, but they are so heavy to carry." She wanted to bring Maevyn away from the tall promontory, to bring her back where there was something to take her mind off of the raid. Nonetheless she was surprised when Maevyn actually stood and followed her, and sat with her beside the fire. She still did not speak for a time though, and she kept looking back the way they had come. Absently she sucked on the bread Leni had given her, trying to moisten it enough for chewing.
After a while though, her attention turned to Leni and the eggs. It seemed as if the Elf girl turned them over and over, every few minutes. She watched for some moments, head cocked, before the corners of her mouth turned up in a smirk. "So what're you gonna name 'em?"
Leni looked up, blinking at the question. "I am not so bad as that, am I?"
Maevyn gave an emphatic nod. "Uh-huh. You're acting like you're their Mama-bird."
Leni smiled ruefully. "Well, I suppose they need one, poor things."
Maevyn squinted at the impassive exteriors. "They're just eggs, though. 'S'not like they're real babies."
"They are not like the eggs one eats for breakfast, Maevyn. Rukshash says they are fertile. That means that inside of each a young eagle is alive and growing."
Maevyn considered this. Giving up on the bread, she put her hand on one of the eggs and rocked it gently on its rounded base. Picking it up in both hands, she looked at it closely, but of course this yielded nothing. Her face screwed up a little. "Maybe," she said at last, "but I don't think it counts as a baby until it's actually out."
Leni shrugged. "It is life, in any case," she said. Taking the egg from Maevyn gently, she set it down beside the other two.
"What's he want 'em for so bad anyway? Bragdagash, I mean. Why's he been carrying them all this time?" It certainly wasn't because he felt bad about the parents or felt any responsibility for the little lives inside.
"I am not completely sure. The others say that there are those who will pay well for eagle eggs, further North."
"Who'll pay? Other Orcs?" Leni did not know the answer to this. Maevyn cocked her head, musing: "Wonder what they'd want 'em for. What they'd do with them."
Leni did not say anything to this. From the frown on her face she had been wondering the same thing, and not very happily. Whatever it was, she clearly doubted that it was benign. Stroking one of the eggs, she murmured again, "Poor things."
Maevyn put her arms behind her head, watching her. After a moment or so she said, "I found a little egg one day. Green with brown speckles. I thought it was so pretty. I took it home an' all, I was gonna try and hatch it."
"My stupid brother broke it. I was so mad at him! It was already rotten, though. It smelled bad and it made inside our house smell bad too. Mama thrashed us for it so I hit Demi after, but I was kind of glad he broke it."
Leni gave her a blank look. "Why glad?"
"I dunno. 'Cause then I didn't waste my time, I guess. I would've spent all that time taking care of it and wondering when it was gonna hatch and nothing would've happened. I'd never have known it was rotten inside and there was never any point."
"But can you truly say there was no point?" asked Leni earnestly. "It is a good instinct, wanting to protect something, to care for it. It is the beginning of love. Being willing to spend the time and the effort on something or someone other than yourself: this means something."
"Not if the thing you love is a rotten egg," said Maevyn. "Or if it's not a rotten egg, but nothing good's gonna come of it. Like them." She pointed at the eagle eggs. "You can't say anything good's ever gonna happen to them, so why bother?"
Leni was silent a moment. Finally she said softly, as if to herself, "Because we cannot know the future. Because where there is life, there is hope."
"Hmm." Maevyn was skeptical. "Sounds like rotten egg talk to me."
Getting on to dark and Mushog was at a disadvantage. Both he and Shrah'rar were equally drunk, but Mushog was using his less favored hand and Shrah'rar had the advantage of his night vision. The Uruk was starting to squint now while the snaga-Orc's eyes were as keen as ever. When Mushog lost the second game Shrah'rar noticed that Mushog's mood was becoming dangerous and that was when they moved their game to the fire so that Mushog would have a better time seeing what he was about. In some ways, though, the new location was even worse: the flickering flames cast shifting shadows and played tricks on the bigger Orc's eyes.
"Ah! Fuck you, you little shit, that did move: I saw it!"
"No it didn't," said Shrah'rar.
When he and Mushog had moved to the fire Leni and Maevyn had moved away. It was dangerous to be near the Orcs when they were drunk: they were dangerous and destructive even when they were sober, and alcohol only made them the more predictable in their unpredictability. In any case, Eleluleniel had more than herself and Maevyn to protect that night: there were also the eagle eggs. Without the advantages of the fire she nestled them in the furs of her bedding, continuing to turn them from time to time.
Maevyn sat at the edge of the furs, watching Shrah'rar and Mushog at their game. It was a simple stick game, one much like she had used to play with her brother. There were a clutch of twigs on the ground and each player had to pick up one in turn without disturbing any of the others in the pile. It was weird to see two grown Orcs playing what she had always known in her old life as a children's game and which had certainly been dismissed as such by adults. This wasn't to say that there weren't a few distinct differences between how Maevyn had played it with her brother and how Mushog and Shrah'rar were playing it. For one thing, where she and Demi had played it in the spirit of competition and for the fun of winning, Mushog and Shrah'rar were playing it for swallows from the drinking skin they shared between them.
"You're such a cheating bastard, Shrah'rar." Mushog turned his scowling face away from the game for a moment and saw Maevyn watching them. "Oi, Brat! Come over here." When Maevyn didn't move his heavy brow furrowed. "I said come, eh? Or do you want me to go over there?"
Maevyn looked over at Leni, who was clearly alarmed at the prospect of Mushog coming over by them, and stood reluctantly.
When she was beside the fire, Mushog didn't touch her, he just gestured to the pile of sticks. "You watch. I don't trust this snaga piece of shit."
Maevyn refrained from rolling her eyes, even though Mushog wasn't looking at her: she was within smacking distance and it wasn't worth risking. Standing over the two Orcs, she folded her arms across her chest and watched. As things went on, though, she became interested in spite of herself, getting down on her knees so that she could see better.
Shrah'rar was annoyed to have the Brat watching them. Quite aside from his annoyance with Mushog's continued refrain that he was cheating, the girl's close gaze was, in fact, making it harder for him to cheat. Shrah'rar was no more dishonest than any other Orc, but he did take a certain pride in the straight face that he maintained, the "did I just see that?" speed of his fingers. "Your go," he said calmly enough, but he shot the Brat a deadly glare that she ignored and that Mushog missed entirely.
Mushog's calloused fingers approached the little pile with a kind of exaggerated care. They paused, and he became very still. Maevyn watched his hand, but when it didn't move and it didn't move she looked up at his face. There was a flat concentration in his golden eyes, a set look to his jaw.
The twig he was going for was a little apart from the larger pile, but it lay across one of the longer bottom sticks that was supporting the others and just below another twig slanting less than an inch above. He stared a long time before, finally, he made his move, taking an end lightly between thumb and forefinger and lifting gently. He was doing fine until just at the end, when the twig he was taking brushed against the one above it.
"It moved," said Shrah'rar.
"No it didn't," said Mushog.
"No it didn't," agreed Maevyn.
"All right, it didn't," Shrah'rar conceded. He knew that it hadn't but he also knew that, speaking as he had, he had sown an uncertainty in the Uruk. Mushog had not let go of the twig – too much to hope for, that would have been an instant disqualifier – but it was trembling ever so slightly in his fingers. He began to lift it again; again it brushed the twig above, and this time the second twig shifted noticeably. "Moved," said Shrah'rar with an evil grin.
Mushog cursed and, with a sudden swipe of his broad hand, dashed the little pile apart. "Prick!"
Maevyn scooted back quickly on her bottom, getting clear of the big Orc's display of temper but he wasn't paying attention to her, all of his anger directed at Shrah'rar. He was standing, fingers flexing as he towered over the smaller Orc.
Who shrugged unconcernedly. "Good a place to stop as any. Now we don't have to wait between drinks."
Mushog's anger abated somewhat in the face of Shrah'rar's calm and a piece of plain good sense that even he could appreciate. "'S'pose that's right," he acknowledged after a long moment, sitting down again.
"Besides, I'm hungry. Why isn't there any food, eh?"
"Oi! That's right! Come on, Brat, what are you sitting around for? It's fucking dinner time already here!"
"Well don't yell at me, you're the one who said—" Maevyn began in an aggrieved voice, but was cut off.
"Here," Leni said, seeming to come from out of nowhere as she interposed herself between Mushog and Maevyn, kneeling down beside the fire. "I have food ready, it only needs to cook." Her tone was mild enough, but turning her head toward Maevyn, she mouthed something at her fiercely.
Maevyn had no idea what it was that Leni was mouthing, but she could just imagine. She subsided in simmering resentment.
"Oh, so now we have to wait? Should have had it ready for us, you stupid twat." But Mushog did not sound so ill-tempered as he said that, his eyes running over the Elf's pale form. Probably she detected the shift in his tone—she shifted closer to Maevyn and unwrapped the little leather packets as quickly as she could, laying pieces of meat on the hot stones at the edge of the fire.
Maevyn had to resist the urge to retch. The meat smelled noisome to her. It was over a day old and pig flesh did not do well in the heat. To the Orcs, of course, this made little difference. Indeed, she had heard them remark that it added savor. Make me puke, she thought.
Age was not a problem, but Shrahrar had another complaint. "Pork again. Dinner, breakfast, midday snack, and now it's dinner tonight. I hope they bring some goat when they come back."
"I'll just bet you do, you little pervert. Alive and kicking, no doubt!" Mushog burst out laughing at his own joke.
Shrah'rar cast his eyes upward. This kind of joke grew tiresome after a while. "I'm just saying I wouldn't mind a little variety, that's all."
"Well. It isn't as if we don't have our choice of meat here, is it?" Mushog grinned, looking at Squeaker and the Brat. "Been a long time since we've had man-flesh, eh Shrah'rar? And I've never had Elf." He licked his lips, looking the latter over deliberately. She said nothing, seemed as if she hadn't even heard, just continued to kneel beside the flames and stare down at the meat that cooked there as if that would make it heat all the more quickly. He chuckled and took another swallow of beer.
"You know what I could go for?" said Shrah'rar idly. "Those eggs of Braggy's. Can you imagine it, Mushog? Fried up a treat, all golden and warm. Just a shame we don't have a pan, eh?"
"I've never had eggs that way." Mushog gave him an odd look.
"Mmmmmmm…" Shrah'rar's eyes went hazy, remembering. "You don't know what you're missing, friend. I remember hitting a merchant's convoy once in the wee hours. They were just fixing their wake-up meal and after we killed the ones by the fire I had a little try of what it was they were about to have. Oh but it was good. Ham and eggs, Mushog. Nothing like it."
"Next you'll be telling me you had the loveliest piece of toast with it, ooh! with jam and a little pat of butter and all…" Mushog mocked him.
"Are you mistaking me for Pryszrim? Nar, don't scoff. I'll always remember that morning. Best meal I ever had." Shrah'rar sighed with remembered pleasure.
"I've only ever eaten them raw," said Mushog. He liked them that way. Like to take them and crack them open on his lower teeth and let their slick insides run into his mouth and down his throat. His tongue played over his teeth, thinking of it. "I wonder what eagle eggs taste like?"
"Well, eagle liver is good, right?" said Shrah'rar logically. "'Seat of vigor' an' all. And eggs are good—good energy to be had from them. And eagle eggs are big too: how big are those eggs of Braggy's, anyway? Big as my head?"
"Hey, Squeaker." Mushog tapped Leni's arm. "Go fetch us those eagle's eggs, eh?" She said something softly. "What was that?"
"I said, Bragdagash does not want them damaged."
"Hurr." Mushog grinned at her. "We're not gonna hurt 'em, we just want a look."
"Nonetheless, it is best that I leave them as they are. It is night now, and they need to be still for a time."
Mushog threw back his head, hooting uncontrollably. "Like little babies, haw! Are they all tucked in for the night then? That's cute!" He lowered his eyes to her again, and drunken amusement was tempered by a predatory gleam. "That's adorable. But seriously. Why don't you go bring them here?"
His hand was on her upper arm, squeezing rhythmically. It was his hurt hand that he was using, but he didn't seem to feel it, perhaps because he was drunk. The Elf looked him directly in the eyes. "I cannot go just now. I am cooking your food for you."
"Feh. Leaving it for a half a minute isn't gonna hurt anything. Besides, I'm not interested in pig anymore." His thumb swirled against her.
"Just what are you interested in?" asked Shrah'rar, finally sensing that something was awry.
"I want eagle egg, of course."
The other Orc was horrified. "Are you crazy? Bragdagash will kill you!"
"Just one, right? He'll never miss it. Come on, we'll split it: those eggs are huge. Plenty for the both of us."
"You think our chief doesn't know the difference between three and two?" Shrah'rar was almost sputtering. "You're drunker than I thought. I'll have nothing to do with it."
"More for me, then," said Mushog.
"I'll have nothing to do with it," Shrah'rar said again, but he was still alarmed. It didn't matter if Mushog was the one to eat the egg – he would be guilty by association. "Mushog, don't, I don't want to get in trouble for this."
"Awww, you're afraid of Braggy yelling at you? I'm not scared of him."
"Let go of my arm," said Squeaker. "Please. Let go of me. I cannot do anything while you are holding onto me this way."
"'Please…always please and thank you. So pretty, the way you talk," Mushog crooned, drawing her closer so that she smelled the beer and old blood on his breath before he released her. "Go on then," he said. "Go get me my egg." She stood and he grinned, waiting as she went by him before aiming a slap at her backside to hurry her along. His judgment was off and he caught nothing but open air, which struck him as very funny at that moment: he laughed and laughed.
The Elf stopped some yards away and turned. Maevyn, who'd been sitting wide-eyed through what had preceded, saw Leni's eyes alight on her, saw her mouth move. Quickly she scrabbled to her feet and hurried after. "What are you gonna do?" she whispered, hovering as Leni knelt down among their sleeping furs, where the eggs were nestled. "If Mushog ruins one of those eggs we'll be the ones beaten for it."
"He will not get one of them, not one," the Elf girl said firmly, lifting away the fold of fur that covered them.
"But what are you gonna do?" asked Maevyn again as Leni picked up an empty pack.
"Will you do as I ask?"
"Take them." Leni nestled an egg into the pack, and then another. "You have carried them before. Take them into the forest, deep as you can. Just take care not to lose yourself there. You can make your way back later, when time has passed."
"He is drunk and, what is more, he is lazy. He will not follow," the Elf girl said with certainty. "Not far, at any rate. I will stop him if he does."
"But what can you do?"
"Just go." She pushed the pack into Maevyn's arms.
Maevyn hefted it uncertainly. The eggs felt heavier than they had before and she remembered her conversation of earlier with Leni, and thought of little eagles sleeping, all unknowing, in small dark worlds. "He's gonna be mad," Maevyn said.
"Mushog is often angry," said Leni. "But he has been drinking, and he will sleep, and tomorrow when he wakes up he will be just as glad not to have done something he would have regretted."
"Oi! How long does it take an Elf bitch to fetch an egg?" came the Uruk's cross voice.
"Maevyn, go, now!"
Maevyn slung the pack over one shoulder and, on impulse, stood up on her tiptoes and gave Leni a sudden kiss on the cheek. "Don't let him hurt you." And then she turned, her face flaming in the dark, and ran from the surprise in Leni's face and from Mushog's demanding voice.
Eleluleniel stood staring blindly into the dark where the trees had swallowed her up. Then, slowly, hesitantly, she made her way back to the fire.
Mushog turned his head to look at her as he heard her approach. "Well, where is it?" he asked, and though her arms were clearly empty he looked at her expectantly, as if he thought that it was behind her back or hidden up one of her sleeves.
"They are not there," she said, speaking honest truth.
"Not there? What do you mean, they're not there? You lost our chief's eggs?" Eleluleniel was silent. Mushog, on the other hand, looked too surprised at first to be angry. Then his eyes narrowed as he looked about the fire. "Where'd the Brat go?" She said nothing. His face darkened. "She took them, didn't she? You had her take them."
"They are quite safe," she said in a calm voice, even as she withered under his fierce gaze.
Shrah'rar breathed an open sigh of relief.
Mushog was glaring at Eleluleniel. "You sneaking bitch…"
"It's just as well, you would have gotten us in trouble," said Shrah'rar.
Mushog ignored him. "You had better hope to fuck nothing happens to those fucking eggs."
"She will take care of them," the Elf said faintly.
"You had better hope so, for her sake. I'll shove my foot so far up her arse it comes out her fucking throat." He seized her wrist. There was a grinding sound as the bones of her wrist grated on one another in his hand. Eleluleniel gasped and tried to pull away but Mushog pulled her toward him. As he did the fierceness of his gaze abated somewhat. The obvious terror in her response was some small appeasement for his anger; then, too, the situation began to strike him as rather funny. It was just so unexpected: he wasn't accustomed to any kind of resistance from Kurbag's Elf. "You sneaking, sneaking bitch…" he chuckled as she stared at him, her face pinched in pain and fear.
Dark, and in the night sky overhead the white stars cut like diamonds. They were so sharp and bright and cold. She was not running now, but walking quickly, and staring up as she did at the stars through the dark tree boughs overhead. An owl hooted, jolting her out of her star-gazing, and she stopped stock-still and looked around her, knotting her fingers anxiously under the strap that dug into her right shoulder. She thought of the eggs she carried on her back. She had taken the eggs because she didn't want them damaged, didn't want either herself or Leni to be punished for it. Now she thought of other ways they could have been damaged and she wondered suddenly, guiltily, if her running earlier had hurt them, if she had shaken up the baby chicks inside.
And then, since that was something that she couldn't do anything about now, she thought about more practical matters and where she was and if she was going to be able to find her way back again. She heard Leni's words again in her mind:
Take them into the forest, deep as you can. Just take care not to lose yourself there. You can make your way back later, when time has passed.
That same owl hooted again, somewhere nearby, and she looked around to see if she could see it, but if she did it just looked like part of any old tree. It seemed as if it was just her and the owl awake and all the rest of the world asleep. But she knew that wasn't true. Somewhere behind her she had left Leni alone with Mushog and Shrah'rar. Shrah'rar shouldn't be a problem, she didn't think anyway, but Mushog was another matter.
"She told me to go," Maevyn said out loud. "I only did what she told me." She felt a sudden burning in her eyes and rubbed at them fiercely, stubbornly, with the back of her hand. "She can handle it, whatever happens. She's been through it all before," Maevyn muttered. But she felt small and selfish as she said it, and she hugged herself hard, wishing that she had stayed and knowing that it would not have done either of them any good.
Well, best not to stay where she was. If she wasn't going to go any further, she should at least get clear of the ground. Mushog might come after all, for all that Leni had said she would stop him, and even if he didn't, there could be other beasts in the dark. Maevyn chose a likely tree and caught hold of the first branch within reach, hauling herself up. When she judged herself at a goodly height she found a crook in the branches where she could wedge herself with some safety. After she had gotten herself situated she shrugged her shoulder free of the pack and took it in both arms, holding it against her belly. There she remembered her words of earlier, when she had argued with Leni about the lives inside the eggs, and she thought of how strange it was that she should be here holding them to her belly, quite as if they were the most precious things in the world.
"I wonder how big you are," she murmured over the pack, "and how much longer you have to go." She wondered if they could hear her inside their shells or if they were sleeping, and then she wondered if their whole lives were like a sleep. The owl hadn't hooted again and all around her the world was still. She wondered if even the trees were sleeping, and what dreams they might have. The fragments of an old lullaby came into her head and quietly she began to hum it and, after a time, softly to sing.
"Sleep, sleep, sleep little baby…out of the dark and out of the wild…Sleep, sleep, sleep little baby…here in my arms, my own little child…" She rocked the eggs in her arms and imagined her mother alive and holding her in the dark. "Dear, dear, dear little baby…dearer than earth and the deep round sky…Sleep, sleep, sleep little baby…here in my arms, till morn-ing…"
Mushog's forearm was pressing against her throat. It was difficult to breathe. He'd tried to unlace his breeches but he was too drunk for his fingers to make sense of the laces and so he gave up, or perhaps in his beer-blurry mind he had succeeded. He shoved his groin against her roughly, grinding clumsily against her, and she had no idea if he was hard or soft behind the material of his breeches. It was irrelevant really; he was hurting her either way. The Uruk thrust and grunted and swore under his breath and seemed wholly oblivious to the world around him. She squeezed her fingers under his arm, trying to purchase some relief from the weight on her throat.
He worked against her until his body went rigid and a ragged moan came out of his mouth. Then the pressure slackened and the full weight of his body came down upon her and Mushog was still, and then snoring.
The Elf girl gave it a moment. Then, with a great effort, she rocked at the Orc over her, rocked and squirmed until she was able to pull herself free of his bulk. Raising herself up on one hip, she coughed and felt of her throat where he had pressed down upon her. Gingerly she touched her bruised flesh as she looked down at the, now comatose, Mushog. She knew that Kurbag would have something to say about that when he returned. He did not care if Mushog or the others made use of her, but if the marks they left were too noticeable it annoyed him. He would yell at Mushog and Mushog would be resentful and would find some way to take it out on her in turn: some way that didn't leave marks, or not many.
"It's a marvel, isn't it?" commented Shrah'rar, who was still beside the fire. "A big fellow like that, full grown an' all, an' he still can't hold his drink."
She stood up and smoothed the skirts of her dress down around her legs automatically, as if nothing of significance had happened, as if she kept entirely different company. If Mushog had spent he had done so in his own breeches, for there was no trace of him upon her beyond her dishevelment and a general sense of personal filthiness.
There was a knife at his hip, such a knife as all of the Orcs carried, for knives were not Mushog's weapon of choice: his way was of the sword. But it was a knife for all that. He moved in his sleep; he had been laying belly-down, sprawled out full-length, but now he turned onto his side, mumbling to himself as he sought out a more comfortable position, knees close to his belly, for all the world like an overgrown child. The knife became all the more prominent, jutting as it did from his hip. Eleluleniel stared down at the Orc and imagined taking his knife and killing him with it, burying it in his belly or in his throat. It was a gray thought and emotionless, with neither yearning nor satisfaction in it. She knew that she would never be able to do it. If she had been Maevyn, she knew, she wouldn't have hesitated, but she was only herself. It was not in her to kill, even such as them.
Shrah'rar unleashed a belch greater than his small body should have been able to produce and scratched himself comfortably. "Hey Squeaker, leave that great fool where he lies and come over by the fire. Night's getting a bit chill."
She did so, wondering why he made this overture and what it was he wanted. He did not leave her to wonder long.
"That pig was better than I thought it would be. D'you have any more?" Shrah'rar had eaten both his share and part of Mushog's and his stomach was round with his gorging, but he was still hungry. He sighed with anticipation as the Elf girl retrieved and unwrapped another of the little leather packets, laying pieces of meat beside the flames. "Ahhhhhh…You know, I was talking about variety before but really, my tastes are very simple. Keep it simple: that's my attitude. Be content with what you've got. Pretty good, huh?"
"Insofar as it goes," she murmured. Prodding the pork with a stick, she wondered what it was that she was supposed to be content with.
"How's that?" He cocked his head but when she didn't say anything further he dismissed it. "Anyway, that was pretty bleeding clever of you earlier with those eggs. If anything were to have happened to them we'd both be for it, eh?" His crimson eyes narrowed. "Only thing being, of course, that now we don't know where they are, and I don't like that so much. You sure the Brat's not gonna let any harm come to them out there? I don't care much if something big and scary gobbles her up, but those eggs, you know, those are what you might call an investment."
"I am sure she will take care of them."
"I certainly hope so," said Shrah'rar. "Because it's our arses if she don't, and it's our arses anyway if she don't get them back before Bragdagash and the others return." His nostrils twitched. "I can follow her scent if need be, but I'll rip her a new one myself if I have to do that." He felt full, not inclined to move from his current position by the fire, much less wander around the woods in search of some snot-nosed tark. Leaning forward, he speared a chunk of flesh crudely with a jagged black talon and held it up it up for a moment like a trophy before shoving it into his mouth and chewing noisily.
Eleluleniel looked away from his noxious meal, gazing out at the trees. "You will not have to," she said quietly. "She will come back."
Maevyn did come back some hours later. The night was still dark and she used starlight and her memories of the trees she had passed to guide her back to camp. It was scary because it took her longer than she thought it would, and there were several times that she thought she had lost her way. Finally, though, she saw the glow of the fire through the trees and was able to make her way back to the clearing.
She held back hesitantly for a moment, looking for the dark figures of Orcs, not knowing if the others might have come back yet, but there was only Mushog's sleeping bulk and Shrah'rar still sitting cross-legged beside the embers of the fire, idly tracing something in the dirt with a twig. He lifted his head and she saw the glow of his bright eyes as he saw her, recognized her, and grunted his recognition. He didn't make a sound beyond that and she didn't either: they were both taking care not to wake Mushog up, though with the snores coming out of him Maevyn was amazed that he hadn't woken himself up by now. Shifting the pack on her shoulder she nodded at Shrah'rar, then bit her lip and looked about for the pool of deeper darkness that was the pile of furs she shared with Leni. She made her way toward them.
The Elf girl was asleep, the dark thick cover fur drawn up under her chin, and her blue eyes were open and sad and unseeing. As Maevyn knelt down and slipped the pack from her back Leni's eyelids fluttered and she turned her head, looking up for a moment in blind alarm at the dark silhouette above her before relaxing back into the furs. "Ohhh, you came back," she said, almost sighing.
Maevyn nodded before thinking that Leni might not be able to see that. "Yes, it's me," she whispered, slipping in under the covers. She pulled the pack close, then thought the better of it and opened it, taking an egg out and slipping it under the covers between them. She did the same with the other two so that the little clutch of eggs was nestled between her and Leni. They wouldn't come to any harm there: they were too big and their shells too thick to be squashed in the night time, and they would keep warm and snug there until morning. "He didn't hurt you, did he?" Maevyn asked.
Leni yawned. "I am all right," she said.
Maevyn, annoyed, thought that that was not what she had asked, but she didn't comment. She shifted one of the eggs further down so that it wasn't pressing against her chest, and stroked its warm side for a moment, liking the leathery surface. It made her think of her village when the heifers were with calf in the late spring, and she would put her hands against their muddy sides. "It's not a bit like a cow," she said out loud.
"What? Of course not," said the Elf girl groggily.
"No, I mean, when a cow is carrying her baby, you can feel it inside her belly. And Mama said that when Demi and I were inside of her we kicked…" She waited for Leni to say whether anything similar happened with Elf mothers, but the other girl did not volunteer such information. "Then again, maybe when they're further along we'll be able to feel them inside…"
Leni yawned again. "Maevyn, I am trying to sleep."
"Mmm…" A hand touched Maevyn's arm in the dark before slipping down. Leni's fingers found hers and curled around them. "It is all right."
Leni's arm was over one of the eggs like she was hugging it. Maevyn pushed her body closer. The warm contour of the egg was comforting, like a mother's pregnant belly. "It's like they're our babies, isn't it, Leni," she said sleepily.
"It is," murmured Leni, squeezing Maevyn's hand. "Now sleep."
Contented, Maevyn closed her eyes.
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.