Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 13. Enmities
Híril noticed first that something was amiss, her senses far more developed than those of her master. A soft growl formed deep in her throat and she snarled, pulling back her lips to reveal sharp canines.
"What's wrong with her?" Hallas, perched high above the ground on Barangol's back, twisted in the saddle to look at the dog.
Boromir glanced up at the boy. A long winter of scarce nourishment and the fever after his fall in the icy river had weakened him so Boromir often let him ride while he himself walked, leading the horse by the bridle. But gradually, color was returning to the boy's cheeks and he did look a little stronger every day.
Grief for his father still showed in his eyes, yet he had not put up much resistance at Boromir's suggestion he come along, after that first, tearful outburst of denial. Well, the lad was twelve years of age, old enough to face the realities of forest life, painful to admit as it was.
"I do not know," Boromir said. "She must scent something."
He signalled for the dog to keep close; he did not want her running off on her own to investigate. Something about her behavior worried him and the way she bared her teeth told him she did not merely scent a hare's burrow or a fox's den. Whatever it was that put the dog on edge distressed her enough to raise the hackles on her back.
Boromir kept a hand near the hilt of his sword, scanning the surrounding countryside and keeping half an eye on Híril. They continued cautiously, winding their way through pine trees and scattered thickets of birches. The river Lefnui flowed past somewhere on the left, mumbling soothingly. They followed its course upstream, hoping to find a place to ford the river. A ridge of impassable hills had forced them far south and by the time they reached the Lefnui, it was too wide and deep to cross, thus leaving no choice but to backtrack north. Boromir was determined to head west as soon as they crossed the cold stream, to search for the pass that would take them over the southbound arm of the White Mountains and into Drúwaith Iaur.
A cool breeze came down from the mountains, carrying a whiff of an unpleasant stench on its wings. Boromir stopped in his tracks as he inhaled, tasting the air. Híril repeated her warning growl.
Yes. There it was once more. That smell, though diluted with fresh mountain air and spring flower fragrance, was awfully familiar. He would have recognized it from among a thousand foul odors: orcs!
"What is it?" Hallas looked around, bewildered when he could not see anything wrong.
Híril was quivering with eagerness to be go and confront the danger. Yet in the time spent together, Boromir had trained the dog too well for her to run off without his permission. Barangol snorted nervously and pranced, tugging on the reins in Boromir's hand.
"Orcs," Boromir muttered. He gestured at Híril. "Stay."
The dog whined softly but settled herself on her tail, still trembling with suppressed anxiety. Ears pricked forward, she kept her eyes fixed upon the eastern hillside and never stopped the low grumbled warning. Boromir followed her gaze and studied the sun-bleached hill. It was a clear spring day, and the grassy slope was sprinkled with pink and purple crocuses; yellow daffodils; a white flower whose name he could not remember. Rocks and crags cast shadows but he could see no caves. If there were orcs here -- and there must be -- they could not number many. There simply was not enough shade for them to hide. Still, he dared not risk continuing without knowing more about his eternal enemy.
It was an unpleasant surprise to find orcs so many leagues to the west. He had expected to have left the last remnants of the surviving hordes far behind. He loosened his sword in its scabbard. "You stay with the animals," he told Hallas.
"I want to come!" the boy complained. He readied himself to drop from the saddle.
"No. I need you to make certain Híril does not get in my way and that Barangol does not spook and run. Understand?" He refrained from adding that the boy was too young, too weakened and too inexperienced to confront anything as fierce as an orc.
"All right." Hallas nodded, reluctantly.
Boromir's gaze had detected a narrow crevice near the top of the hill that looked promising as an orcish hiding place. He began climbing the slope, mindful of the loose rock that littered the grass.
The stink grew stronger the closer he came to the shadowy opening, and he heard shuffling in the darkness. There were none of the usual snarls and growls, however, that he had come to associate with orc bands.
His brow furrowed, and he pulled his sword from its scabbard. With the weapon at the ready, he took a deep breath and stepped into the gap.
The floor in the small crack between the rocks was rough and uneven. Her body shook with fevered chills that sapped the last of her strength. Even so, soft noises from the darkness urged her to try to gather her strength; her litter, three younglings strong, mewled with hunger. In a little while, she knew, their soft whimpers would change into demanding shrieks echoing around the mountains.
"Gôsh! Be quiet!" Her voice was a rough snarl but it lacked conviction.
It was not the cubs' fault; the whelps were too young to realize the danger of drawing attention. She should get up and feed them what little she could -- although it would not be enough. Days had passed since she last managed to venture out of the den and find sustenance for herself. She was dying, and when she died, her offspring would die with her. The pups could not yet survive on their own, and there was no one else to care for them.
Still, in a way, she considered herself fortunate. When her tribe lived in the shadow of Lugbúrz, the sick were put down without mercy. Those who cannot work, are no-good burdens, so the captains commonly held, and only fit to be fed to the winged steeds of the Nazgûl lords. But here, in the mountains with the snow-capped peaks of the Ered Nimrais towering high above, she was alone. The Nazgûl were destroyed and could no longer terrorize her into obedience; there was no rival female coveting her small nest. And she was far from the white City of Men. Nobody would kill her before her time. Her whelps might have a chance to continue her line -- if she could manage to hold on to life long enough to give them a decent start...
Such illness as hers was an uncommon occurrence for her breed. The race of the orc was stalwart and rarely got sick. But a fever had haunted her since the end of last summer, when she birthed her litter. It slowly drained her strength until she was a mere husk of the powerful female she used to be. And though it was likelier that her fever was the result of a birthing in squalor, or exhaustion and malnourishment, she found it more satisfying to blame the new king of Gondor, who, in defeating the Great Eye, had caused an end to the only existence she had ever known.
"May Her Ladyship feast on his flesh." She had uttered the curse below her breath before recalling that the fearsome spider was likely long dead.
Yet, while she struggled to gather enough energy to feed her children, she found it easy to muster hate and her eyes shifted toward the two boys in her litter. "You would make mighty warriors," she told them. "Warriors fit to kill the nasty tark and filthy whiteskins!" They gurgled in reply. How could they understand what she meant? They were so young.
Her head turned back until she gazed at the wall opposite. She licked her lips. "They taste good. Sweet and juicy." She chuckled, and the chuckle turned into a round of coughing that racked her body and left her gasping.
A tiny claw curled around her wrist and Karguk, her eldest, hauled himself onto her chest. She grinned with motherly pride and used some of her meager strength to help him up further. An instant later, sharp fangs closed around a teat. She shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position while her son struggled to draw the nourishment he needed so badly.
She gave a deep sigh. "Oi, bold Karguk, I fear you will never learn the taste of Man-flesh."
The future had not always seemed as bleak as it did today. "Before were the good days," she told the suckling whelp. "Sauron, the Great Eye, watched over us and the Lord of the Nazgûl promised treasures beyond imagination. We'd find it in the Men cities and Elven realms, he said. Sparkling riches and more meat than we could ever dream to eat."
She drifted with the memories, never noticing how Brugagh replaced Karguk at her breast after a short but fierce struggle for dominance. In her mind, she was back before the walls of Minas Tirith, reliving the battle lost. A staggering defeat that had cost the race of the orc their future and forced her to flee far from her home.
It was not much later when a moan escaped her and she woke with a start from her nightmares. The stark fear she experienced on the battlefield that day held her frozen so it took her a few moments to realize she had been dreaming, that it was no longer real.
But it had been real, once. The arrival of the wraiths, led by the Man-king, causing sheer panic to race through rank upon rank of black orcs, catching them all up in its terror. The Nazgûl lord fell and, when his power no longer kept them together, they ran. She had spared no thought for where she was going; terror drove her on, fright for herself and her unborn litter, still safe in her womb. She had stumbled blindly, farther and farther away, until much, much later she came to her senses and found herself among green, rolling hills with white mountains looming high above.
She was alone, insulated from news, yet instinctively knew when the war was over. The orcs had lost. Their fate was sealed, their race doomed. If Men or Elves found her, she would suffer a terrible end and her whelps would never be born. She did not dare turn back, and so she ran on, deeper into the forest, higher into the mountains until at last she could run no more.
And that was where she found herself now. In a narrow crack between the rocks, feeble with fever and three brats clamoring for her attention.
She turned her head away from the wall to look upon her spawn and she flooded with pleasure in spite of her dire situation: she had produced three strong cubs, an unusual number. Two of them sturdy sons and one fine-looking daughter with long arms and wide hips. Yet she despaired at the world they had to survive in. Hunted by the victors, chased to the end of the world and beyond, with no place left to hide -- what future was it that they could look forward to?
But it no longer mattered. They had no future. Soon, she would die, and they would die with her. The line of her foremothers, the lineage of Skullgrinder, would be wiped away forever with the passing of its last daughter, Drukh from Nurn and her three babes.
Still, life was tenacious. Drukh was not yet ready to give up the fight and she clung to what little hope she had left. When Silge in her turn pulled her brother away and took his place at her breast, she strained to sit up. Her daughter was sucking hard in an attempt to draw what she could from her mother's dried glands.
Something blocked the entrance to the small cave, casting a shadow to fall over them. Drukh looked up in alarm and a sharp hiss escaped her when she saw a Man standing in the opening. It was a sign of the shape she was in that she had not scented his presence or heard his approach with senses honed through generations until he revealed himself.
Drukh pushed Silge off of her, despising herself for trembling in the face of the enemy. The pup whined in protest even as her mother's hand searched for a weapon. But Drukh was too weakened to move much and could only stare up in hatred while the Man gazed down upon them. In her eyes, he was hideously fair, like so many of his kind. Tall, broad-shouldered, strongly muscled. She knew he was no weakling. This Man was a warrior, and she was certain her end was near. She was like unto a helpless suckling, an easy kill, and while she prayed for a swift end, she waited for the blade to come down.
Yet, though his sword was unsheathed, he did not raise it. Numerous expressions crossed his features but she could not read any of them. Drukh had no experience with the faces of Men. At last, he cursed in the Elven tongue she despised so much and turned away, leaving a ray of sunlight to fall onto the floor.
Her yellow eyes blinked in surprise. She gaped at the empty spot where he had been standing, trying to comprehend. Why was she still alive? Why had he not used his sword to spill her insides onto the cave floor? It could not be fear that kept him back, of that she was convinced. He had the look of a warrior, and even a Man couldn't be as blind as to not see her frail and helpless state. So, why, then? Perhaps this was a cruel game like the descendants of Ungoliant played with their prey. She shuddered. He would be back soon, and her end would be all the more terrible for the delay.
But time went by, and he did not return. He was still outside somewhere, though, not far away, waiting. This she knew, for she could scent him now she had learned of his presence. Panic assailed her and she tried to shift her limbs. She had to leave! She should take Silge and Karguk and Brugagh and find another hiding place. But her strength was waning and she could move only a feeble arm.
It took Boromir's eyes a minute to adjust to the gloom inside the crevice after the brightness of the spring day. He tensed, expecting to be set upon any moment, but no attack came. Once his vision had adapted to the dark conditions inside the cave and he could determine what it held, he could scarcely believe what he saw. Instead of finding a band of orcs, he found a single adult and three... baby orcs?
Did orcs produce offspring?
He had never given the matter much thought. He lived by a simple truth: orcs existed, a bane to Man. They embodied evil and it was his obligation to slay each one that he found. Yet, he hesitated. His sword was in his hand, the blade sharp and ready; all he needed to do was raise it and plunge it down into the orc body slumped at his feet. Still, strangely, he found himself holding back. It was an orc, and as such deserved death. Yet, it was also, by the looks of it, a mother.
"Valar forsake me!" he swore and turned away, unable to bring himself to cold-bloodedly murder a defenseless mother, even an orcish one.
"Erandír? What is it? What did you find?" Hallas called up. He had dropped from the saddle and tied the horse to a tree. A tense Híril sat near his feet. He shaded his eyes from the sun as he peered up at Boromir. Surprisingly, his voice held more curiosity than fear.
"Stay there!" Boromir called back. He stood for a long moment, torn with indecision, before he began to pace on the meadow in front of the orc den. His long, quick strides betrayed his agitation. The green grass crumpled beneath his boots, releasing a fresh spring scent that banished some of the reek emanating from the cave.
The decision should not be so difficult. Inside the crevice, hidden from sight and the sun in their stony lair, were four of Gondor's enemies. Foul beasts that would not hesitate if the situation were reversed. Four determined slashes with his sword would extinguish their lives, and his land would be the safer for it. It should be so easy; it was what he had trained to do all his life.
Except nothing had prepared him for a situation like this. Three of the orcs were helpless whelps. And the fourth was a female, a mother, and if his eyes did not deceive him, a very sick creature. Hardly the kind of ruthless enemy he was used to.
He stopped walking to wipe his brow with his sleeve; the day had turned warm, filled with the promise of summer soon to come. Perhaps, he decided while he turned his gaze toward the shadow that marked the orcs' hiding place, perhaps all he needed to do was wait. He did not know much about orc anatomy -- aside from the most effective way to kill them -- but even in the gloom of the cave, the she-orc had appeared to be on the brink of passing. If she died, no action was needed on his part and nature would take care of the problem all by itself.
"Erandír? Are you not hungry?"
The voice startled Boromir from his wishful thoughts. He realized he had forgotten all about his young charge. He glared at the boy, though he was unsure whether he was upset with himself for being caught off guard, or with the boy for disregarding his order to remain with the animals.
"I'm sorry," Hallas said upon noticing the scowl. "I know you told me to stay with the horse but you've been up here for the longest time, walking back and forth. Nothing happened, so I thought you would want something to eat and have some water." He held out Boromir's water flask and a package wrapped in cloth, like a peace offering.
Boromir had to admit his stomach was feeling rather hollow, and the thought of food made it rumble in anticipation.
"Thank you." He unwrapped the cloth, revealing a cooked rabbit's haunch left over from yesterday's catch. He tore off a strip of meat.
"Did you find any orcs?" Hallas took a curious step further up the hill.
"Stop," Boromir said. "I do not want you to go there."
"But--" Hallas began, when his protest was cut short by a loud ruckus coming from the crevice. With the attention of man and boy diverted, Híril had no longer been able to withstand the scents that had been assaulting her senses for a long time. She had slipped past them to the cave. She barked furiously at the darkness, then suddenly she yelped in pain.
Boromir swore beneath his breath. "Accursed mongrel!" He ran to the crevice, grabbed a handful of hindquarters and pulled Híril back.
His anger dissipated when he noticed the animal's snout. It was bloody where sharp fangs had pierced the sensitive skin of her nose.
"Is she all right?"
Híril whined and tucked her tail between her legs as soon as Boromir let go of it. "She will be. Let me see those bites, girl."
He reached for his water flask and poured a generous amount over the animal's nose, holding on tight to her fur with one hand while ignoring her struggle to get away. He hoped plain water would be enough to clean the wound so it would not become infected. Orc bites could be nasty.
"Are those real orcs?"
Boromir cast a glance over his shoulder to see Hallas peer into the blackness of the cave. His voice held no fear, only wonderment.
"Yes," Boromir confirmed. He let go of the dog and climbed back to his feet. "You would do well not to stick your nose in. Did you not see what happened to Híril? That ought to be a lesson for you."
"She scared them," the boy said, slowly inching further forward. "What's wrong with the big one? Is that the mother?"
Boromir rolled his eyes. The boy was full of questions today. "I do not know. But I suppose yes."
Hallas was making soft, soothing noises while creeping even deeper into the cleft. Tense, ready to pull the boy away in an instant, Boromir decided not to interfere just yet. If Hallas did not want to heed his words, perhaps he would have to learn the hard way.
But the anticipated attack never came. Hallas crawled back, unharmed, cradling a baby orc in his arms. Its misshapen face crinkled at the scent of the dog's blood and cooked rabbit. It snapped its fangs at Boromir.
"They are so little," Hallas said. He looked up at Boromir. "I think the mother is dead. Can we keep them?"
For a long moment Boromir was too stunned to reply. Then, not sure whether to laugh or be angry, he replied curtly, "No. Put it back with the others."
"But they'll die without their mother!"
"Precisely." He softened his voice. "Hallas, orcs are vicious, nasty creatures. Has your father not taught you such?"
Hallas hesitated. "Yes, that's what he said too. But I've never seen an orc before. And these don't look very dangerous."
Boromir chuckled. "I believe Híril would disagree with you." The dog was licking her paw, running it repeatedly over the injured nose. She kept a wary eye on the little creature in the boy's arms. A soft growl emitted from her throat every time the orc shifted.
"She attacked them first," the boy said with stubborn logic.
And for good reason, Boromir thought, but did not say. "What would we do with baby orcs?" he asked instead. "We can barely find enough to eat to sustain ourselves. And when they grow up--"
"But we can't leave them to die!" Hallas cried. "Look! It's hungry." Much to Boromir's amazement, the small orc suckled Hallas's thumb. Boromir cringed inwardly, expecting the wickedly sharp teeth to sink into the boy's flesh at any moment.
"True," he agreed. It suddenly dawned on him what he would have to do and he wondered what made him hesitate before. Was he growing soft-hearted?
"Put that back with the others," he said. "Then take Híril and Barangol and walk ahead. Leave the orcs to me. Perhaps you can find the nest of those ptarmigan we saw, and raid it. I would not say no to fresh eggs with dinner tonight, would you? Whatever you do, do not come back here. I will find you. You hear?"
"What will you do?"
"What I must," Boromir replied. "What I should have done hours ago."
For a long moment it seemed as if Hallas would disobey but then he bowed to Boromir's authority. He dropped to his knees and cautiously shooed the orc back into the crevice with its siblings. "Bye, little one," he muttered.
He gave Boromir a last glance before he trotted down the hill and untied Barangol's reins. At a gesture from Boromir, Híril ran to the boy and followed him when he began to lead the horse through the trees. The soldier waited until the child and the animals had disappeared into the forest. He pulled his sword free and tested its sharpness with his thumb. He gave a last look to make sure Hallas complied with his orders and had not come back, then took a deep breath of fresh air, stooped and entered the orcs' den.
Hallas stared into the flames of their cooking fire without saying a word. He had been quiet and morose ever since Boromir caught up with him. When he had finished his dinner, he set his bowl aside and poked the burning logs with a large stick until sparks shot up into the night sky. Híril, dozing patiently beside the fire, opened one eye to watch the flames. When satisfied she was not in danger, the eye closed again and the dog heaved a sigh.
"You killed them, didn't you?" the boy asked at last.
"Why? They were harmless."
Boromir sighed. "Today they were," he said. "But once they grew up, they would have become our enemy, delivering death and torment to the people of Gondor. The way their kind has since time immemorial." He put his own plate down and turned to face the boy.
"Hear me well, Hallas. Every terrible story your father told you about orcs is true. And they are tenfold more vicious than he could ever explain to you in words. Consider yourself fortunate that you have never had to see with your own eyes what orcs can do to a person."
His voice drifted off and he was talking more to himself than to the boy. "Countless are the scenes I have witnessed. Farms burned to the ground, their occupants still inside. Women, children, maimed and butchered. Soldiers, torn limb to limb." He suddenly looked up and caught Hallas's eye. "They feast on the flesh of their victims, devour them raw, did your father tell you that?"
Hallas's eyes grew round and he shuddered despite the warmth of the fire. Boromir felt a pang of guilt at frightening the boy, but it was important he understood why Boromir had done what he did. That sometimes a soldier had to make choices that might not be to his liking, but that were the right thing to do regardless.
"You lie," the boy said, but his tone betrayed it was a token protest.
"I would wish," Boromir said. "They hate us, you see. It is in their blood." He paused for a moment. "I do not know why. You know we could not take them with us. And with their mother gone, they were doomed. Would it have been kinder to let them die slowly of hunger?"
Hallas shook his head, gazing at the ground. "I suppose not," he mumbled.
Author's note: If some of this sounds familiar, you're right. A more extended version of Drukh Skullgrinder's tale can be found in the stand-alone story Enmities.
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