Maevyn heard a shrill cry from overhead. She blinked and peered up, but the sun was in her eyes. Was that Grymawk? She yelped as a coil of rope struck her across the face, tightening her grip automatically in response. What the—Then she heard the eagle screaming, and her heart dropped into her stomach. Oh no. But wait a moment…they had killed….
Of course she could also be counting on Daddy-Eagle to take care of business. But I think we would have met him by now, if there was a Daddy-Eagle.
"STUPID Grymawk!" The length of rope was falling past her shoulder. Maevyn, who was locked in place where she clung, watched despairingly as the end whistled by, jerking like a mad thing before it disappeared below the level of her vision. She felt the sudden tug against her belly thereafter, as it reached its full length to hang below. Now that she knew she wouldn't have the rope to fall back on, the stuff on her back became suddenly even heavier than it had been before, like the weight of some enormous bird settling on her shoulders.
No. She wasn't going to think like that. What she had to do…what she had to do…."If I can just make it down to the ledge…." she whispered, and lowered her leg to find the next foothold.
Good meat he had found to bear back for her: back for his mate, so hungry. Brood-hungry: craving the far-roaming flesh, horsemeat from the plains. A tender young colt: good eating.
He dropped it when he saw the two-legger at the mouth of their home. Screamed with anger to see an intruder: screamed with greater anger to see the intruder an Orc. Swung low in the air to take it, but it was small and quick: his talons caught air. Without the room to turn, and taken by a sudden foreboding—where was his She? where was his mate?—he roared on up the passage to their nest, and found atrocity.
His cries of anguish echoed through the mountain—cries for his She, for his own noble one. Who had climbed the heights with him. Whose wings had beat with his; whose heart had beat with his. That great heart stilled forever.
MURDERER! ORC MURDERER!
He roared back down the passage again, but did not see the spawn that slew his mate. It would have fled then. Let it flee—he would find it.
He did not see the small figure emerge from behind a slab of stone partway along the passage as he passed.
Grymawk had some brains. He wasn't going to make himself an easy target on the cliff face, or wait to be nabbed in the mouth of the fissure. When the eagle shot over him he scrambled after in the same direction it had gone, finding a refuge somewhat nearer the eyrie. Damned bird might have seen him—the rock he had hidden behind was shorter than he was!—but the dim light and the frenzy of the eagle were to his advantage.
They're stupider than the ones up North too, he thought. Little birds should not build their nests where they cannot see.
A quarrel was notched in his crossbow, but he had not fired when he might have. Let the bird find his bait! He might have some hope of surviving this if he could get the drop on the eagle while it was feeding on loudmouth tark.
The rope hanging from her belly bobbed thickly against her knee and the motion made her queasy. All she needed was for it to catch on something, or to get tangled between her legs, and…ooh, she could fall. She would have looked down to see if she was any closer to the ledge, but her neck was constrained by one of the many straps on her body. That and the weight behind the strap made it difficult to breath. She would not free a hand to tug at it. She needed every ounce of flesh for the task she was about.
She hadn't heard any screaming for a minute or two. She wondered if the eagle had eaten Grymawk, or simply snapped him in two with its sharp beak. Probably the latter—she didn't imagine that Orcs tasted very nice.
"So then it's one," she told herself, gasping a little for breath. "One…from ten…that's not so very bad." Obviously she couldn't take credit for Grymawk's demise, but she tried to pretend that she could. It was the only way she could see anything good about the situation. The eagle would not be busy with the Orc for long. It was probably going to notice her, and when it did, she would be in the same shape as Grymawk. She had been in the eyrie too, after all. And the eggs were heavy.
There was a whoosh that sucked the air out of the immediate vicinity, and something walloped her from behind, and she fell.
She had a second's impression of clear blue sky and fleecy cloud and angry raptor crowned in a bright sun-halo.
She saw this as she landed with a thud on her back and rocked there, like an overturned beetle balanced precariously on its carapace.
Well, that answered the question of the ledge. It hadn't been so very far below after all. Not that this gave her any cause for relief. She was trapped on her back, buckled securely to the load that she was lying on, and there was a giant eagle half perched on her, one feathered claw resting on her dangerously. Two hard, curving talons arced over her pelvis: they tightened abruptly, holding her in place. Even in her fear-panic she could see that the male was slightly smaller than the female had been. But still big. Oh yes, plenty big enough.
"Orc!" demanded the eagle. "Where!"
When she heard the words spoken in that harsh scritch of a voice, she was stunned. It—it talked. It talks! But…eagles weren't supposed to talk. Animals couldn't talk, not like people! She thought back on the dead mother eagle again and there was another cold sinking in her belly: a whole new level of horror.
"Answer!" The heavy claw shook her roughly, rocking on her on her back, and she cried out, limbs flailing ineffectually. "I will rip your belly! Answer!"
He would do it anyway, Maevyn knew, just as she had known with Grushak, and she pushed aside horror for fierce calculation. The best course she could take would be to stall. She thought of the three eagle eggs currently pinned between her and the ledge. She wondered if they were damaged or if somehow, miraculously, they were unharmed. The eggs. They were her best shot.
"He doesn't have your eggs," was what she cried then.
The bird's double take might have been funny under other circumstances. "Eggs? What you say? What about eggs?"
"The eggs! He doesn't have them!"
The eagle cocked his head, blinked without closing his eyes. Two translucent secondary lids slid sideways from front to back to front again, a brief sheen on the tawny irises and dark pupils—but his gaze on her never broke. It was an eerie, alien stare: more foreign and more unsettling than even the eyes of an Orc.
The eagle looked with sudden fierce intent down at the worm-prey squirming under him. Man-child he knew it to be: sexless and nameless, for these he could not see, and he had no care for name or sex in any case. He did not pause to wonder what this small one had to do with an Orc—it would die, just as the Orc would die. He was thinking of eggs, as he had not been before. He had been thinking of his mate: now he thought of the eggs they had covered with their bodies, alternating shifts, tending their unborn together as partners. Anger and grief for his dead She warred with a sudden, unexpected urgency: there were little ones depending on him. "What about eggs! Where are eggs! You tell me now!"
His talons tensed on her, and Maevyn knew that they had the power to crush bone. She would have to tread with care. "I can show you!" she said. "I can show you, if you let me up."
A second's hesitation and the claw left her body. She was too small to present any credible threat to him, after all.
Maevyn tried to pull herself free of the straps that restrained her, wriggling for all she was worth, but the angle she was at made it too difficult. Grymawk had been the one to secure everything on her body: when her hands fumbled with the straps she was unable to find the places to undo them, and they had no give to them whatsoever. The eagle, watching, hissed impatiently, but she was caught fast. "I…I'm trying!" she gasped out, and meanwhile her brain remarked on the ignominy of her current position, summing it up with a mournful, This is sooo stupid…
He made an aggressive humming noise and lifted his claw, extending a talon over her body in an unmistakable manner. This terrified Maevyn. The eagle's sickle fore-claw might make short work of the straps, but would likely eviscerate her in the process. "No!" she managed, "I…I have something!" Her hand wormed its way into her pocket, finding her knife. She pulled it out and thrust it quickly under a strap bisecting her stomach: an upward sawing motion and she was able to sever the strap. That done, she made short work of the others.
She pushed herself up until she was sitting awkwardly on a pack that, she realized from the rounded contours beneath her rump, was the pack containing the eagle's eggs. Looking up, she was confronted with seven feet of angry male eagle, neck feathers crested in an intimidating fan, head swiveling. "Eggs!" he spat. "You tell me where they are!"
Sitting on the eggs, staring at their angry Daddy, Maevyn realized she did not know what to do next. If she told him where the eggs were straight off he would make short work of killing her. On the other hand, if she tried to stall he would probably do that anyway.
The sharp beak opened and snapped shut. His meaning was not lost on her. "They're in one of these packs," she temporized quickly. He started to lunge and she toppled backwards. "Wait! You need me to find which one! Waaaaaaait!" she wailed.
Grymawk, edging his way cautiously into the sun, peered down. Below he could hear the man-brat howling. She's still alive? Huh. Well, at least she should continue to prove a distraction for the eagle. He could just make out the bird on the ledge, bristling bronze and gleaming in the sun. Carefully he hefted his crossbow and carefully he shuffled another inch forward.
"Now!" the eagle declared. "Tell me which, now!"
Standing up, Maevyn brushed grit hastily from the backs of her legs and elbows. "It's in one of these!" she said, kneeling beside the bundles and packs, which lay in some considerable disarray where she had shed them, while the eagle hunkered over her threateningly.
Her brain was rapidly turning over possibilities in her head. Not only did the eagle talk people-talk, but he seemed able to think like a person as well: able to change his mind, to understand her even in his rage and hear her out. Maybe this was her chance. After all, she hadn't wanted to go up to the nest. She wasn't the one who killed the mother eagle. Maybe she could say that. Say, Orcs were gonna hurt my friend. They killed my brother! I didn't even want to be here! He probably hated the Orcs as much as she did. Maybe she could—
The eagle's claws spasmed anxiously as he shifted his weight from one to another. The little worm-prey was clearly trying to delay. He was eager to dispatch it and to seek out the Orc that was still loose and was doubtless still nearby.
A strange sound overhead, high and keen; sudden pain as the arrow buried itself in his neck, piercing deeply! He threw his head back in a shriek of pain and fear. "ORC!" screamed the eagle. "MURDERING ORC!" His wings beat the air with the sound and the force of trees thrashing in a gale, and the child on the ground before him cowered. Its movement caught his attention and pain made him respond without thinking clearly. Orc! Threat! He went for it.
"Stupid STUPID Grymawk!" Maevyn moved fast, throwing herself out of the eagle's path and rolling painfully on the stony ledge. Any stupid idea of somehow gaining the eagle's sympathies disappeared—there was no way he would listen to anything she said in this frenzy! Now she could only think of her next move. Quick as she was up, knife ready, the eagle struck at her again: she aimed a hasty slash that she ended in mid-arc, barely evading the snap of a beak that would have severed her arm. Her knife was not the tool for this job. She needed to stay as far from close contact with the brute as possible.
Dodging another strike, she almost tripped over the answer to her prayers. When she'd cut her straps before Maevyn had also detached Grymawk's gray rope safety line, and it lay in a forgotten heap at her feet. She grabbed a loop and flung it out clumsily, smacking the eagle across the face. He actually squawked. Shaking his head in a stupid way, he drew back a little, which made Maevyn more confident. Taking another swing, she thwacked the top of his skull.
This second blow seemed to knock sense back into the bird, though. Focusing on her again, he hissed, his head swaying like a snake's. His eyes were almost hypnotic and so she did not look directly at them but in between, where the fine feathers of his forehead furrowed to the juncture of his beak in a diamond pattern. Oddly, not looking at his eyes helped her read him better: she dodged his next feint easily. But that was because he was trying to lower her defenses, or to tire her. He could have taken her easily by now, she knew, and the thought that he was playing with her made her furious. Maevyn was sick to death of people playing with her! She whacked him again.
She still did not know the properties of Grymawk's darts, or that some of his arrows were also envenomed. The eagle shook his head against a strange lethargy. He never thought to attribute it to the arrow in his neck, which angered more than hurt him at this point. The worm was turning on him. This was not acceptable. It swung the rope at him and he caught the line with a snap of his beak, bearing down.
The sudden pull on the rope jerked Maevyn rudely forward. She let go but nearly lost her balance anyway, teetering dangerously within the eagle's reach. He swung his head at her, the side of his beak connecting brutally with her ribs. She let out a yelp and slashed back with the knife, scoring the side of that narrow serpentine head, scratching the cornea of one large eye. She saw blood and felt a surge of glee to have marked him. The eagle screeched in disbelieving rage.
"The rope, you little idiot! Grab the rope!" A slight dark figure dropped onto the ledge.
Grymawk was not holding his bow. Well, of course not—what good would that do at such close range? He couldn't get a good shot from above: easy enough when his target was stationary, but then the girl had gone and gotten the bird all riled up. (Grymawk discounted the technical detail that, truth be told, his shot of a moment before had already done that. Whatever: she'd continued it.) "Throw me the fucking rope, damn you!" he screamed with new urgency. The eagle had turned at the sound of his voice.
At first he wasn't sure the little git heard him, but then she snatched up a coil and flung it over the creature's body. Luckily one of the two rope ends happened to be part of the coil she flung: it whistled through the air and Grymawk caught it in his dark clawed hands. Sucking in his breath, he ran under the eagle's raised wing, dodging a vicious peck in the process. "Back—the other way! Back!" he shouted as he emerged on the other side. She stood dumbly, infuriatingly for a second; then, catching up the length of rope remaining to her, she ran under the eagle's other wing so that, between the two of them, they had traversed the fierce raptor in a simple crisscross.
The eagle shrieked as he felt the tough cord bite into the juncture of wing and back, of underwing and breast, tightening painfully on his body. This was not supposed to happen! They were smaller than he was! They were his rightful prey! Angrily he beat his body up into the air, but the constriction at the base of his wings afflicted their curvature and made him clumsy: it was a pitching, unwieldy take-off and he was only able to manage a few feet of lift.
Grymawk grinned at this measure of success, but his grin faded when he saw the girl make another pass under the distracted eagle. "…shit! Get out of there!" he hissed as she threaded her end of the rope around one of the eagle's legs in what he recognized as a half-assed try at a hogtie. She scurried out of reach and turned, pulling hard on the rope. She was too puny to tip the bird herself, but the eagle's own strength and size worked against him: his right wing was now partially hobbled to his right leg, and when he tried to beat his wings he canted dangerously.
Grymawk was no idiot and was not putting himself anywhere near that sharp beak. He started to unbuckle his bow again but the eagle, seeing what the Orc was about, swung his left wing and batted Grymawk against the side of the cliff. Stunned, Grymawk slumped to the stony ground. He saw the eagle's narrow head approach him; heard the uncanny hiss from the open beak.
He threw up his arms in a pointless but instinctive move to shield his face…and a rock glanced off his elbow. Cursing in surprise and pain, he cradled the injured body part against his chest. The second rock struck its intended target and, with a wrathful cry, the eagle swung away from him toward the one who had thrown it.
"Hey! Hey!" yelled Maevyn as she threw her second rock. She hadn't meant to hit Grymawk, but wasn't going to waste time feeling guilty. She had a notion that, if she could maneuver the eagle toward the edge of the ledge, it might be possible to knock him off. Fettered as he was, he could become imbalanced, and she didn't think that he could fly. "HEY!" she shouted, and pelted the bird again. He clacked his beak angrily, head swaying as he approached: the front part of his body undulated in a serpentine fashion, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the clumsy hop he took towards her.
Four rocks were all she'd been able to find. She had her knife in one hand, the rope coiled around her other wrist so that she wouldn't drop it: now she cinched it up against her body and yanked. She might as well have been hauling on the mountain. No, her strength was nothing to the eagle's—she would have to find some way to use his own against him. How, she would just have to figure up once she had him in position. In the meantime she continued to make herself as irritating a target as possible.
"Just a little further…just a little further," she muttered. Glaring at the eagle, she made ready to sidestep his next attack, hoping that his lunge would send him over the edge.
Meanwhile, Grymawk did not plan to waste this opportunity. Scrambling to his feet, he finished unbuckling his bow, which was luckily undamaged by a close encounter with the mountainside, and quickly cocked a quarrel. The girl had the eagle out on the edge, and Grymawk's tongue found abode in his cheek as he took aim. It was readily obvious what she was about, trying to antagonize the bird into overextending itself. Grymawk clicked his tongue. Even addled with anger and pain the eagle would not be stupid enough to throw itself off a cliff.
Not without the right stimulation.
Whether the girl's plan would have worked or not would never be known, because at that point Grymawk fired, his quarrel slamming home under the creature's spine.
A scream, raw and livid, and the injured raptor lurched forward. With a jubilant cry the tark child jumped aside, dropping the length of rope in her hand—but both she and Grymawk had forgotten about the loop coiled around her wrist. As the eagle plunged over the side she was yanked bodily after.
Grymawk blinked at how suddenly it had all happened. He stared at the empty expanse of ledge before him. "…Damn."
"Here's a thought," said Mushog. "What if Grymawk's bought it and we don't know and we're just sitting here with our thumbs up our arses? What do we do then?"
Rukshash shrugged. "Enjoy the sensation."
Mushog took a second to process that one—when he did, he guffawed loudly. Nazluk, in contrast, rolled his eyes. "Fools. When dusk falls and he hasn't returned, it should be evidence enough he's not coming back."
"Grymawk'll live. He knows I'll kill him otherwise," said Bragdagash dryly.
The others chuckled at this, save Pryszrim, who started to open his mouth but closed it again, befuddled. Most jokes went over Pryszrim's head, and this one was no different. "I'm bored," he said instead. "Who has the dice?"
Shrah'rar, who had wedged himself into a cool spot between two large boulders, opened one eye, glaring. "No more! Enough with the dice! I'm having a hard enough time napping as it is…and when I close my eyes, I keep seeing little white dice rolling."
Pryszrim looked hopefully at the others, but his face fell at their obvious disinterest. "There must be something," he muttered, and looked around. His eyes fell on the slender form of Kurbag's Squeaker, sitting a little distance from the rest of them. The Orc's eyes narrowed, and he licked his lips. He stood up.
Eleluleniel had not been mindful of the Orcs and their banter. As the day wore on she stared at her knees and at the yellow stones beneath her feet. She was thinking of Maevyn, and that she would probably not see the younger girl again. She had only had her company a few brief days, but that was more than enough to show her just how lonely she had been among the Orcs. Maevyn had given her someone and something to think of beside herself. Comforting the other girl had been of some small comfort to her as well, and when she had lost Maevyn's esteem it had been another, crueler kind of loneliness.
Eleluleniel was too wise to think she had regained that esteem. She knew that Maevyn, while sympathetic, could not help being repulsed by her. But even pity, however it might hurt, was something to lean on. At least someone knew of her pain, someone who actually cared. When Maevyn was dead, there would be nobody. It would be hard, returning to that loneliness. A tear slid down the Elf maiden's smooth cheek.
A shadow fell across her lap and she looked up to see Pryszrim smirking. And suddenly she had something else to worry about. When Kurbag's lust was on him he generally had the forbearance to wait until the others were asleep, or take her somewhere quiet first. Otherwise, the sight of one of their own enjoying himself could quicken the others to similar desire, a mob assault ensue. She had been victim of such before. Pryszrim's hungry grin elicited ugly memories. No, she thought, and stiffened in alarm, not here…not now…
But Pryszrim's hunger was of the more innocuous variety. Grabbing her pack, he unfastened the flap and began pawing through it. "Come on, isn't there any bread left?"
Relaxing slightly, Eleluleniel said nothing. There was one loaf, but if he couldn't find it she did not want to help him look. In the unlikely prospect that Maevyn came down alive, it would be there for her.
Grumbling, frustrated not to find what he was looking for immediately, Pryszrim completely upended the pack, dumping out its contents. A dark flash caught her eye and Eleluleniel dove forward with a cry, catching her tinderbox before it hit the ground. Kurbag had given it to her after a raid some time ago and she guarded it closely: she needed it to get the fire going whenever the Orcs set up a new camp. As she knelt with the precious object cupped in her hands, she saw a corner of the much sought-after loaf protruding from a fold of fur. She made a subtle motion to pull the fur over it but Pryszrim saw and kicked her hand away.
"Hah! Want it? You should have made more," he exclaimed as he snatched it up. Salivating, he opened his mouth to bite—only to chomp down on air. After staring at his empty hand in pathetic dismay, he darted his eyes around wildly.
There was a low chuckle. Kurbag was surveying him from above, head cocked to one side as he tossed the piece of bread up and down. "You want it?" the half-Uruk asked. At Pryszrim's fervent nod he made as if to hand him the loaf but then yanked it back, making the smaller Orc protest fitfully. "Oh Mushog, what should I do?" Kurbag called in mock innocence, turning to his fellows. "He says he wants it back."
"Wants it back? Wants what back?" asked Mushog. "Let me have a look!"
"No!" squealed Pryzrim as Kurbag threw Mushog the loaf.
The Uruk caught it and grinned, turning it over and over in his dirty claws. "What, this thing? Pryszrim, you little snaga. This stuff is for thin-skins. Elves and Men and all their ilk."
"It'll kill you if you eat enough of it," added Rukshash. Mushog dropped it into his waiting hands. Bringing it to his flaring nostrils, Rukshash snuffed deep and snorted distastefully. "Don't you know what it's made of?"
"Give it here," said Pryszrim, moving toward them anxiously.
"Why no. What is it made of?" asked Nazluk, grinning as he got up and got in on the game.
Rukshash threw it to him. "Flour, of course. Flour all ground up fine. And you know what that'll do to you if it builds up in your guts?"
"Come on, Nazluk, give it here," whined Pryszrim, turning to him.
Nazluk held it a taunting several feet over Pryszrim's head. "Why no, but I'm sure you'll tell me," he said to Rukshash, ignoring the smaller Orc's desperate bids to snatch it back.
"It'll swell up. It'll turn into a vicious paste in your innards and sop up all the moisture until it ruptures your belly and comes oozing out your nose. It'll split you open like a rotten fruit."
"Ooh. That does sound bad," said Nazluk, looking down at Pryszrim with a smirk. "Doesn't that sound bad to you, Mushog?" He threw it back to the Uruk.
"Terrible," said Mushog, and tossed it to Shrah'rar, who had wriggled out from between the boulders.
Pryzsrim, seeing the loaf was finally in the hands of someone smaller than himself, growled and went for him, but Shrah'rar scuttled out of his reach and licked the bread as he ran. "Oh no! I can feel it working!" he declared as Pryszrim followed in angry pursuit.
The others were laughing raucously, Bragdagash included. Why not? It was good for morale—his Uruk-hai were bored to be sitting on their arses, while regular Orcs are never happy in daylight. Better bonding than bickering, even if it was all of them against Pryszrim. Especially when it was all of them against Pryszrim: the little fool provided a handy focal point that way.
Under his tree, Grushak snorted at the others' antics but wasn't really paying all that much attention. Hrahragh, in recompense for finishing off the beer, was scratching his back. The big Orc hunched his shoulders and hunkered back a little. Sun made him itchy and Hrahragh was handy with his claws. "Lower…" he muttered. As the Uruk complied Grushak looked off vaguely in the direction of the mountain. He was the only one who happened to be watching it just then, and so he was the first to see what looked like a tiny speck descending on a faint strand of hair from the high fissure. He blinked and squinted.
Hrahragh, breaking off his scratching, looked to see what had Grushak's attention. His eyes, better than Grushak's in daylight, perceived the small figure immediately, as well as the second figure at the mouth of the fissure itself. "Huh. Both alive," he said. "Now you owe me."
"We wagered nothing on it," said Grushak in an absent fashion. So. The brat had survived, huh?
"It will be good now, eh?" Hrahragh offered. "You kill her, don't have to wait on it anymore.
Oh, right. Reflexively the sound popped into his head of her squealing as he skewered her. He could feel the struggle of her body before her muscles slackened; see her disemboweled carcass; taste her blood in his mouth. They should have been pleasant thoughts, but for some reason his imaginings, though vivid, were half-hearted. Unrewarding. Grushak grunted, annoyed, as he watch the distant fleck's slow progress.
And so he and Hrahragh were also the first to see the arrival of the eagle. "What the—" said Grushak, straightening.
"Not the same one," said Hrahragh, narrowing his orange eyes.
There were murmurs from the others, who had also noticed the portentous winged shape. The two joined their fellows, and there were some tense moments as the group of Orcs and one young Elf maiden watched what followed. That is, what they could see of it. Everything was taking place quite high up and some distance away: the struggle of doll figures. Sounds came of the battle engaged, mostly the sound of the eagle's shrill screams carrying on the air. The Orcs muttered and fingered their respective weapons, while Eleluleniel bit her lip and then, with great slowness, knelt and began to pack away the items on the ground. She would not look, would not look. Would not look.
Of course, in the end, she could do nothing else.
Maevyn fell against the raptor's body and held tight as he plummeted, as the wind whistled in her ears and tore tears from her eyes, and the bird's frantic thrashing bruised her: threatened to fling her into a freefall of her own. Screaming. They were screaming, she and the eagle both, in their mad descent. He writhed in the air, unable to rid himself of the rope that constrained him; his shrieking threatened to burst her eardrums, but that was the least of her concerns—in seconds every bone in both their bodies would shatter against the stony ground at the base of the mountain.
Even as she gripped the eagle she could feel the hilt of Demmi's knife pressing into her palm, and she squeezed down on it. Oh Demmi…Demmi, I wish you could have seen the eagle, she thought incongruously. You never had a chance….
And with a sickening crunch, everything stopped.
Silent and black. It took her a while to realize that this was because her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. As the thought that she was still alive sank in, they fluttered open and she found herself sprawled on the eagle's body. It had broken her fall. She closed her eyes again and clung to the prone mass, shivering.
After a moment she got up. The world pitched dizzily and she lost her balance: half sliding, half falling off the bird, she landed on her rump and bit back a shriek as a jagged stone jabbed into her backside. Getting up again, this time with greater jurisprudence, she took a moment to steady herself against the feathered carcass. Slowly, carefully, she began to walk around it.
Maevyn had seen enough dead animals in her life, and people too now, to know Death was a diminisher. Most things looked smaller when they were dead. But the eagle was somehow both smaller and larger than he should have been: pathetic and vast. She paced the outline of the body, feeling strange. The memory came to her of Demmi in the woods with her ribbon in his hand, and she clutched her little brother's knife the more tightly.
She came to the head and was somehow unsurprised to find the sharp beak open and twitching slightly, the curled pink tongue protruding as the eagle panted. He was still alive. She had felt no heart beat beneath her, but the bird was still alive. If life this could be called. His body was contused and broken, his breathing painful and shallow. He was dying.
She stood by and watched, and felt a sense of regret. Regret, and shame. This isn't what I wanted, she thought to herself. And then the eagle opened his eye.
His eye was briefly glazed and unseeing, but somehow, incredibly, it came into focus and it perceived what stood before it. "I see you..." hissed the eagle as he held her with his tawny eye. "...Orc spawn. I see you. Little Orc..."
She froze, staring into the unnerving black pit of the avian pupil. Something broke inside of her. Something broke, and rage came with the breaking. She wrenched her knife back with a ragged shriek and bore down on the eagle's lusterless eye.
Her blade sank in without resistance and her fist, closed around the hilt, followed under the momentum. The smooth membrane of the outer orb, punctured, spurted forth an issue of clear viscous fluid around her arm. Croaking with fury and disgust, she pulled back and struck again, stabbing harder, deeper. The sharp beak widened and gaped and the eagle twitched and died, but Maevyn was unaware of anything but the sensation and sight of her arm, buried in this gelatinous mess. Snarling, she twisted the knife.
That was how they found her. The dead bird's eye was a pulverized mass and still she stabbed and gouged in savage fury, elbow-deep in a ruin of jelly and brain-matter. The Orcs paused in temporary confusion—Grushak moved first, lumbering forward and hauling her off the carcass. She turned on him immediately, swinging her knife; he caught her wrist and jerked it back and forth so that the blade fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers. She yelled and squirmed and spat like a cornered animal, but he had her fast, arms caught in his fists, body arced and dovetailing against him.
"...bloody fuck!" Shrah'rar exclaimed. "Will you look at the size of it!"
Rukshash prodded the eagle. "Still warm. It came down alive." He looked it over some, then threw a squinty look at the yowling brat in Grushak's grip. "It would have died anyway, but she sped it along. Too bad for you, eh?"
Shrah'rar scowled and muttered something under his breath about how these little jokes at his expense were unfunny and stupid and tedious and anyway birds weren't his thing. No one else was listening.
"She certainly didn't do it on her own," said Mushog, touching an arrow lodged in the eagle's neck. "Grymawk had some part in it. Where is the little snaga anyway?"
"And where are my eagle's eggs?" Bragdagash folded his arms across his chest and looked bemusedly at Grushak, who had his hands full with the brat. Growling, the big Orc had begun to shake her.
"Oi!" came a voice from overhead. They all looked up and were able to make out Grymawk peering down from some distance above. "Is it dead?" he shouted.
"Never mind that!" Bragdagash hollered up. "Did you get what I sent you for?"
Grymawk disappeared briefly before returning to the edge and flourishing one of his several packs. "Three of them!" he hollered back.
There was a wide display of toothy grins at this. "Three of them," Bragdagash muttered. "Three eagle's eggs, that's…not bad. That's very good, actually."
"More than I can carry without help! Oi, is she still alive down there? I thought I could hear her just then!"
The girl had finally gone limp, dangling from Grushak's grip. Foam flecked her lips and the whites of her eyes rolled in the wake of his shaking her. It would be futile sending her up in this shape. In any case, Grymawk had a sufficiency of cord where he was - they determined he would lower the individual packs one at a time before climbing down himself. The others hung by to receive them, alternating between talk amongst themselves and cheerful curses and praise up at Grymawk. Rukshash and Shrah'rar set to butchering the eagle.
Grushak, staring at the girl, lowered her until she was a sagging, sick-looking heap on the ground in front of him. Releasing her, he stepped on a fold of her skirt but it was obvious she was in no shape to attempt escape. Hrahragh, who had wandered over to look at the damage inflicted on the eagle's eye and head, came back and picked up the discarded knife, examining it curiously. He pulled one of his own throwing daggers and held the two alongside one another, marking the disparity of size and sharpness. Then he stood next to Grushak and together they looked down at the hapless tark child, who blinked and shivered and could have no idea what they were saying. "Seems a waste," he said.
Grushak did not ask what seemed a waste. "Why? Because she killed some oversized chicken?"
"How many you know killed eagles?"
He snorted. "I doubt she could have managed on her own."
"Hmm." Hrahragh looked at the puny weapon in his hand. Laying it on the back of his hand, he began to roll it between and over his fingers, much as a juggler will walk a coin across his knuckles. "There are those who believe in totems," he remarked idly. "Carry stones and trust in them, burn sigils in their skin. They might say she's good luck."
Grushak spared him a furrowed glance. "You believe in luck?"
A pause. A shrug. "Believe in luck we make ourselves."
The big Orc gave a terse grunt, looking at the girl. He nudged her deliberately with one steel-shod boot. She flinched and he looked back at Hrahragh with sardonic eyes. "She doesn't look so lucky to me."
Hrahragh cocked his head. "She's alive, yes?"
Grushak stared at him. Then he threw back his head and laughed full-throatedly. "'Alive!' Some luck!" He looked down again at his captive with a smirk. "You'd have me preserve her as a sort of charm, huh. Like an amulet, or tattoo warding off misfortune. But what if she's more trouble than she's worth, eh?"
Hrahragh shrugged again. "So kill her. Then she is no trouble at all."
"Oh, I'll kill her," Grushak said. He opened his hand and Hrahragh put the knife in it. Getting down on one knee, Grushak surveyed the girl from his superior vantage point. She was panting slightly, eyes full of fear; she tried to scramble back but his knee was pinning her skirt; she grabbed the material, yanking, but he caught her by the hair, jerking her head back to expose her throat, to let him observe the pulse that beat there like a live thing trying to escape from under her skin. He touched it lightly with the tip of the blade and she made a high sound and shut her eyes tight, hands white-knuckled and arms taut as she pulled on her skirt. He pressed the flat of the blade against her cheek, turning her face to one side. Her jaw was clenched and twitching.
"I'll kill her," he breathed, "but nothing says it has to be now."
No great comment was made on Maevyn's continued survival. It was Grushak's business; anyway, the others found her amusing. The story of her and Grymawk's shared exploits had the rest of the Orc-band laughing uproariously. Grymawk had an animated way of presenting himself that could be irritating under many circumstances but that, in the service of a decent story, became quite entertaining. He was having a good time that night, talking and gesturing avidly. That, combined with the liberal imbibing of alcohol and a general sense of accomplishment-by-association, made them all a merry lot.
Orkish merriment can be a dangerous thing. Mushog snatched Maevyn up onto his knee, grinning to see how she struggled. "Tiny thing, you are," he remarked in Westron. "So you kill eagles, huh?"
She snarled at him and tried to free herself. His hands were rough and he smelled like Orc. Beyond the ring of grins she could see Leni's pallid face. The Elf looked absolutely terrified. Seeing Leni's terror, even if Maevyn's fears did not run along the same lines, made her struggle all the more urgent.
"Here now, you leave off!" commanded Grymawk. "She's my little pal, she is. Aren't you, Bait? Huh? C'mon over here."
Mushog laughed and released her. She looked around quickly but she was enclosed in a circle of Orcs and there was nowhere for her to go. And anyway, now that Mushog had let her go and she had caught her breath somewhat, it didn't look like any of them wanted to hurt her. Warily she did as she was told, sitting next to Grymawk, who bumped his shoulder against hers in a companionable inebriated sort of way.
They had set up camp for the night a mile from the place where two eagles died, where the trees began again and there was some wood for a fire. The Orcs were not fond of trees but preferred the cover they provided to completely open sky. Some meat still roasted on sticks near the flames. Maevyn eyed it and wished she could have a bite, but Leni, though she had cooked it for the Orcs, had eaten none herself and had told Maevyn that she shouldn't either. Eagles were thinking creatures and Leni was appalled at the notion of eating such. "Oh Maevyn," she had whispered, "it would be like eating the flesh of your own kind, or of mine."
Maevyn didn't think that should matter once the animal was dead. It wasn't thinking anymore at that point, was it? And surely killing it to begin with had been far worse. Killing the eagle…she didn't feel guilty about that, not really. Just numb. She could remember the black unreasoning fury she had felt, and yet, try as she might, it was impossible to recall the full intensity. What she touched was not the original rage but a kind of after-shadow on the mind. It was like something that had happened to someone else.
And yet she knew that, if she had it to do all over again, she would do the very same. The thought should have been upsetting. It wasn't, and that was what bothered her.
Her thoughts were not so articulate as this, of course. Her mind was a swirl of darkness and confusion. She told herself that what she'd done was killing and not murder. Murder is a wickedness, her da had said, but sometimes killing's necessary. Sometimes people have to kill to live. It wasn't murder if she was defending herself. But...defending herself from what? The eagle had been dying.
I see you. Little Orc...
Leaning forward, she put her arms around her legs and hugged them tightly. The Orcs were talking, forgetting her for the moment, and she listened to the rumble and spit of their strange growling tongue, trying to pick out anything she might recognize. There was very little, but after two days the sound of their speech had grown familiar to her. The fire crackled and popped.
"I've never had eagle before," said Shrah'rar. "It's a good flavor."
In a rare moment's oversight, nobody made any of the filthy rejoinders they'd have come up with otherwise. Few among the others had eaten eagle before either, and Rukshash said it was so long ago for him that he had forgotten the taste. "There are fewer of them than once there were. I think what I had last was tough, but this now, it's quite tender. Tasty."
"It's weird, but it makes me think of steak," said Mushog. He picked his teeth crudely, dislodging a shred. "Gamier, though. Did you or Shrah'rar think to pack up some of the brain?"
"Pah. It's bird. How much would there have been? Besides, the head was a lost cause after she was through with it." Rukshash looked at Maevyn disapprovingly. "Waste of good food."
"There's better to be had than brain anyways," said Grymawk, and belched, and got up. The others muttered agreeably at this. They were waiting on the liver with a sort of eager reverence. Grymawk had eaten no more than the portion he'd cut for himself up in the cave, packing it up resolutely after. He came back to the circle around the fire with a tightly wrapped packet that smelled highly appetizing.
Drawing his dirk, he cut the cord binding it. The scent was in all of their nostrils immediately: a heady, silty, faintly bloody smell made them slaver like dogs. He cut another portion for himself first, a bigger one than before, and let the rest go with a look of reluctance.
Passing it amongst themselves the Orcs ate with pleasure, savoring as Grymawk did, and were certain they could feel an eagle's vigor entering their blood and coursing through their limbs. Proceedings became immediately wilder and louder as boasts were made and insults exchanged. Within minutes Kurbag and Mushog were engaged in an impromptu wrestling match that had the others shouting encouragement to both parties. Neither really wanted to have it out, though, and the combatants soon called a draw and returned to the fire, slapping each other on the back and laughing at the hoots of derision from their comrades.
"I've seen better matches between game hens," said Nazluk.
"Don't you mean gaming cocks? Hens don't fight."
"My point exactly."
"That wasn't a proper match, that was a grope-session!" someone else yelled.
"Hey, if any of you lot really want to take us on…" said Mushog over the jeers, and he and Kurbag both grinned eerily similar, dangerous grins. They were large, young and fit, and there were only three other Orcs among those present who would have made good opponents for them. But Bragdagash was off-limits for this sort of tussling: him being leader, it could get serious too easily. Grushak was content to sit back and watch, while Hrahragh smiled enigmatically and made no offer. With sidelong smirks the two sat down again.
"There's more liver," Bragdagash reminded them all. He had appropriated it earlier when the second eagle was being butchered, and now he unwrapped it as Grymawk had done. The first liver had whetted everyone's appetite and some of the Orcs drooled unabashedly, their chins shiny and slick with saliva.
Maevyn kept nervous track of what was going on around her, hoping to make her escape without looking conspicuous. When Mushog and Kurbag—whom she thought of, rather grimly, as Leni's Orc—began to fight with one another, she tensed, thinking to move then, when everyone's attention was elsewhere. It was over quickly, though, and she was both dismayed and irritated at the lost opportunity. When Bragdagash began to pass out the food again she watched the Orcs slobber in considerable disgust. They were horrid, and nasty, and vile, and so was the stuff they were eating. The enthusiasm with which they tore into it made her stomach churn.
And rumble. Loudly.
Grymawk, about to bite into his, looked at her with a laugh. "Oi, haven't you had any?" he said. "Well, I'll fix that!" She wasn't an Orc, she was Grushak's little snaga tark brat, but she'd still had a part in killing the eagle. Whimsically he figured to himself that, like him, she should have had first dibs. Taking one last mouth-watering bite, he grabbed her hand and plopped the rest into it, smug to be so generous. The others laughed.
Maevyn squealed and, amazingly, did not drop the piece of liver. She stared at it in revulsion. It was pinkish-gray and black and bloody looking, and warm and sticky in her hand. "It's not even cooked, " she said with a child's fascination at something uncommonly gross.
The little Orc gawked at her. "Cooked? You don't cook liver!" he exclaimed, scandalized. "Takes all the flavor out of it!" Maevyn shuddered. "Well? Aren't you going to eat it?"
"Uh…uh…" she stammered, still staring at the gory object. Her stomach was making noises. As revolting as the liver was, she was even more revolted at her stomach's response.
Grymawk felt rebuffed. "Well, if you don't have the sense to know what's good—" he said, and made a move to take it back.
"Nar. Let her eat it," Grushak interjected suddenly from the other side of the fire.
"But she doesn't want it!"
"So make her. You gave it to her, didn't you?"
Maevyn glared at Grushak. "I don't wanna eat it," she said, his interference cementing her resolve.
He growled dangerously. "Eat the fucking liver, Brat."
She turned to give it back to Grymawk but he edged away. He could scent which way the wind was blowing and wanted no part of it. She glared at Grushak again and defiantly dropped the bloody thing at the periphery of the fire.
Grushak stood up, his eyes glittering. Not as tall as Bragdagash, or Hrahragh, or Kurbag, or Mushog. But of a comparable size in overall bulk, and a lot more menacing. "You'd better pick that up," he said.
"You pick it up if you want it so much," she said.
He grinned then, hard and eager. "Oh, you asked for it."
Maevyn turned quickly, scrambling up onto her hands and knees so that she might scramble to her feet and make a run for it, but by that time he was already around the fire; trying to evade him, she was caught up and cast down heavily in the dirt. She coughed and spat out grit as she was manhandled roughly onto her back. Blinking burning eyes, she found Grushak leering down at her. "Oh lads…" he purred.
Suddenly other hands were on her, pinning her arms and legs. The Orcs were in the mood for amusement and here was some sport to be had. She struggled and yelled, but they only laughed. She felt dizzy and could not tell who was holding her: it was all a confusion of glowing eyes and jagged teeth. Someone grabbed her hair and she shrieked as she felt some of it yank free.
Dimly she was aware that Grushak had disappeared. Then he was crouching over her, holding the piece of liver she had dropped. "Open wide!" he said, grinning. She clenched her teeth in an awful grimace, but his grin only broadened as he caught her nose, pinching her nostrils shut.
Maevyn tried to pull free but the hand in her hair rendered her head immobile. Helpless, her wide eyes darted between the dreadful Orc and the noisome morsel he held pressed against her mouth. She whimpered behind tightened lips, knowing that she would need air soon. She was good at holding her breath, but after all of her struggling she had very little wind. She would die if she didn't…take a…breath…now—
She gasped, and Grushak crammed the liver past her teeth. "Lat shakab-vras, lat buth'rubatug shakab-ha," he breathed, and pressed his heavy hand over her mouth to keep her from spitting it out.
She thrashed, or would have thrashed if the others hadn't been holding her so tightly; closing her eyes, she concentrated on not swallowing. Oh Mama, it's horrid, it's in my mouth, she thought, wanting to be sick….and not, at the same time. She hadn't had anything to eat since that morning. And, distractedly, she realized that it didn't taste all that bad. No! She wouldn't! She wouldn't swallow! And it wasn't as if she couldn't breathe now. He was no longer holding her nose—she could breathe through that.
But…"Down it goes, like a good girl," crooned Grushak, and started rubbing her throat with his other hand, and, involuntarily, she began to swallow. She gagged and choked and coughed on the liver and, horribly, it went down. And stayed.
There was a wide chorus of hoots and she was allowed to sit up. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and was scared when she saw blood. But her mouth didn't hurt, and she knew that it must have been from the liver. She licked the blood off without thinking. Realizing what she had done, she dropped her hands in her lap and shuddered.
"Oh, was it so bad as all that?" asked Grushak in a voice of syrupy concern. He was in a half-kneeling position in front of her, arms folded across his bent knee, yellow eyes amused.
She looked at him with narrowed eyes and a heart full of hate. "Fuck you," she snarled, using a word that she didn't understand but that she had heard a great deal in the past few days.
The Orcs really roared at that, including Grushak. Still chuckling, he leaned forward and pinched her cheek, tweaking it cruelly. "Maybe some day when you can take it, Brat. Now, get up! On your feet."
He stood, hauling her unceremoniously after him. She jerked away, folding her arms across her chest and staring sullenly at the ground. Grushak laughed and left her, returning to the fire with the others, while Maevyn stood, and stared at the ground, and listened as her stomach growled again. "Shut up," she whispered to it, "shut up, shut up, shut up," and wished, not for the first time, that she could just let herself cry.
Lat shakab-vras, lat buth'rubatug shakab-ha. "You kill an eagle, you can sodding well eat it."
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.