Lu was stitching a fur lining into a cloak when an Uruk she hadn’t seen before swaggered into the sewing room. He jerked his thumb at her and said to the overseer, “The Boss wants that one moved right now.”
“He wanted that cloak done ‘right now’ too,” said the overseer. “Why don’t he make up his mind?”
“Ask him yourself if you’re feeling lucky,” said the Uruk, grinning.
The overseer glared and swore, but told Lu to put away the work. “And mind you don’t wrinkle it. That’s for Sharkey himself.”
She folded her work carefully, wondering what was going on now. She’d nearly died giving birth to her fourth child, but instead of being given to the Orcs when she was no further use for breeding, she’d fallen into the most pleasant work to be had. Tirga told her years ago that the breeding slaves were well off, but this was undoubtedly much better. As long as she hadn’t run afoul of one of the guards, she had few chores beyond fine sewing for Saruman and his lieutenants. The Orcs left her alone, the work was hardly grueling, and she was kept as clean as the sewing room. Saruman took great care of the fine fabrics.
Isengard being what it was, though, there was always the fear that the job could be withdrawn as easily as it had been given. Now and then, she had been sent back to the breeding dens to teach sewing to any of the new girls who needed instruction. From those visits, she knew that Tirga was training as a midwife, but Lu knew of no others who had lived very long once they were no longer able to produce more half-orcs. They’d all been sent to the fields or the foundries, and most died within six months. The orcs didn’t waste any time making up for the restraint Saruman forced them to practice with the breeding stock.
The Uruk led her out the gates and off towards the far edge of the valley. She panicked for a moment, fearing that Saruman had thought the better of sparing her. Still, he’d let her live in relative comfort this long, and she couldn’t think of any rules she’d broken or guards she’d annoyed lately. It was more likely that they were going to allow her to see her son again. She hid a tiny smile at the thought. The work was exhausting and the overseers in the fields were renowned for their brutality since farm workers were so easy to replace, but it would be worth everything to see Dairuin.
He had been working as a field slave for the last couple of years, after it became clear that nothing they’d thrown at him in the training barracks would make him just like the rest. The bosses talked about it sometimes. They said Sharkey had had plans to make the boy into a soldier once he got a look him and saw he’d never pass for human, but that hadn’t worked. Her son never fit in anywhere in Isengard. The other half-orcs had nearly killed him before Sharkey got wind of it and sent him to the fields.
That made three times that Saruman had spared them when it would have made more sense to kill them. At first, she had been too afraid of looking at her past to wonder what the plan could be. She wouldn’t have survived those first few years if she had allowed herself to remember, but Isengard eventually proved to her that she could live through much worse than memories of her past.
Even when she allowed herself to remember, she had never been able to recall anything that explained his actions. Saruman might have guessed from her appearance and clothing when she first arrived that she was from Gondor and came of a good family. A party of well-born young people could not be slaughtered at a favorite summer retreat without causing a storm of talk all over the Outlands. Though the tales might have included the names of the girls whose bodies were never found, she thought it was unlikely that Saruman could have connected her to the right family.
Even if he had known her ancestry, what did he stand to gain by keeping her? Her plight would certainly not distress Lord Denethor to the point of altering his plans or changing any alliances. Her father would be more susceptible, but he was little use as a tool against Rohan. Still, if she and Dairuin were not being held as hostages, then what use were they? Dairuin could not be used as a spy, nor could he be placed into one of the half-orc troops. She was no use for breeding anymore, and fine sewing could be purchased elsewhere for less than the cost of her keep.
It wasn‘t like Saruman to leave any potential tool unused, nor to spare anyone who was no use to him, but he had spared them. It was more than she could fathom, and she no longer really tried to make sense of it.
The Uruk slowed as they reached a field of carrots where some slaves were at work Lu scanned the group hopefully, but didn‘t see Dairuin among them. When she spotted old Bran, she allowed herself a tiny smile. Nobody could remember a time before Bran arrived in Isengard, nor did anyone know for sure where he came from. He was as close as the field slaves had to a healer, and during Dairuin’s long recovery from the tortures he’d endured in the barracks, the older man had befriended her son. The two of them had been on the same crew ever since her son was sent to the fields, and Bran had undertaken to help him learn to behave like a Man instead of an Orc. If Bran was about, then so must Dairuin be.
“Here she is,” said the Uruk to a half-orc lounging in the shade of a hut. The overseer looked up at her and spat in disgust. He rolled to his feet and seized her by the arm to give the muscle an appraising squeeze. “Sha! Not enough meat on her to bother with. She won’t last, and she won’t be good for anything but soup bones when she croaks.”
The first orc gave a bark of laughter. “You’d better make her last. Sharkey wants her back same as you got her, and he’ll make you sorry if she’s not. Ask Garzh’s mates what became of him...when you’ve got a couple of hours to spare. And the Boss wants her working with Urgakh, too.”
“Why? That sorry excuse for a snaga wouldn’t have a go at her if you paid him in mithril.”
“He’s her whelp. Sharkey likes to see a happy family.”
The half-orc in charge of the harvest crew hooted and slapped his thigh. “Happy family...that’s a good one! Why didn’t Sharkey check before he sent the bastard’s mother over? Stupid dungworm got into a fight with the new slave again and they’re over in the factories. Ha! If you ask me, we should just kill the both of them and be done.”
He turned his annoyance back on Lu. “She doesn’t look like she’ll be any more use than her brat, and I‘m already shorthanded with those two gone. You’ll owe me if I have to coddle her along.”
The first orc made a dismissive gesture as he turned to leave. “Sharkey’ll owe you, and if you ever decide to collect, I want to be there to see the fun.”
The other growled and aimed a half-hearted blow at the first, who laughed and dodged out of reach. The overseer shoved Lu back at the Uruk. “I’m not taking this one off your hands unless you get me some that can work. I don’t care what Sharkey says, I‘m not letting those maggots at the factories do me out of two bonuses in a row.”
“I’ll be sure and tell the Boss you said so.”
“Not if I stuff your mangy carcass into the limekiln first,” said the overseer, fingering his spear suggestively.
The Uruk had only his knife with him. He made a scornful noise, but the hint of uneasiness in his expression suggested he was less than certain of his victory. After a moment, the Uruk said, “If they were mine, they’d be too scared to run even if I was gone all day. You run along and get the other two and I’ll have this lot properly trained before you get back.”
The overseer considered, then reluctantly snapped his fingers and told Lu to come along.
She clenched her teeth and hurried along after him. The fields and the mines were deadlier in the long run, but everyone feared the factories and the possibility of maiming injuries more. Compared to what the orcs did with crippled slaves, death by overwork or in an accident seemed relatively easy.
Though the factories were hidden underground, the earth above them could not entirely mute the noise. The path beneath her feet trembled slightly from the thump and roar of the machines underneath. The overseer yanked open a door in one of the low domes and dragged her down the stairs into a large chamber filled with metal presses.
After a short bellowed argument with the orc in charge of the presses, Groblug stalked off to the other side of the chamber. She couldn’t help giving a sigh of relief when she was left behind. The presses frightened the wits out of her, even when she wasn’t required to reach inside and snatch out a jammed part. Shortly, Groblug returned leading a young blond boy and her son. Dairuin stared at her in confusion for a moment, exhausted and still half-caught in the trance that came from working the machines too long. Finally, he broke into a brief smile. The expression looked odd on him, as if his face was already set in lines of despair and had to be wrenched to fit a lighter mood. The moment passed and he nodded solemnly at her as Groblug led them back out to the fields.
The two boys gave each other wide berth as they walked. Could this child have been the one Dairuin had been fighting with? The boy’s face was certainly bruised enough, but she had so hoped that Dairuin was beginning to gain some control over his violent urges. She sighed. It was probably too soon to expect that level of mastery.
As they neared the gate, the boy began making obscene gestures at Dairuin behind the overseer’s back. Dairuin looked down at the roadway and ignored him. At the edge of the field, the boy whispered something that Lu, with Dairuin and the overseer between them, couldn’t hear. Dairuin went rigid and snarled, “Rot you, Folcred!”
Groblug whirled and slammed the boy up against the wall of the hut. “Listen, you little pustule, ‘cause I’m not telling you this again. Sharkey wants this one alive. I don’t know why, so don’t bother asking. You, though...if anything happened to you, we could get five more just like you by tomorrow. Get the idea? Pick another fight and he can kill you for all I care.”
He flung the boy toward the field. Bran had come up to get Dairuin, his usual partner in the fields, and Folcred reeled into him. Lu wasn’t certain who looked angrier, Bran or the boy. Folcred’s fury was easy enough to understand - no one enjoyed hearing just how little his life mattered in Isengard - but Bran’s patience with Dairuin was normally endless. He’d obviously reached the end of it today, and his expression lightened only a little when he saw her standing behind Dairuin.
“What are you standing around for? Get to work!” said Groblug, leaning back into the little patch of shadow cast by the hut.
Lu pulled Dairuin into the field. “It looks like I’ll be working with him for a few days,” she murmured to Bran as they passed.
“Talk some sense into him before he and Folcred get us all packed off to the mines. I’m not getting anywhere with either of them.” Bran gave Dairuin one last glare as he towed Folcred, still fuming and inclined to balk, off to the other end of the field.
Dairuin grinned briefly and unkindly. “Good. Now he can gnaw on Folcred for a while instead of always me.”
Lu sighed. “Maybe he has good reason. Do you want to dig or trim?”
“Dig,” he said. His eyes lost focus and he shuddered. After a moment, he picked up the shovel and said, “Groblug said he’d break my fingers if he caught me with a knife.”
That was something new since the last time they had met, and it didn’t make a great deal of sense to Lu. If Groblug had suddenly become concerned about slave revolts, Dairuin was the last person he should suspect. The other slaves wouldn’t trust a half-orc with their plans, and they wouldn’t accept one as their leader. Nor did it make sense for the guards to worry about his rages. They had swords and spears and wargs against the short knives that the slaves used, and the guards were hardly going to be taken by surprise by a quick temper in a half-orc.
“Why no knives?” she asked as they started to work.
Dairuin grimaced. “Groblug’s onto me. You heard him; he has to keep me alive, so he won’t let me touch anything sharp.”
Lu squeezed her eyes shut. She had wondered during her last visit whether he was considering killing himself, but she’d thought she managed to talk him into being properly repulsed by the idea. It seemed she hadn’t.
“I thought this time I’d got him, though,” Dairuin said, more to himself than to her. “I thought he was finally so mad that he’d forget, but he didn’t. He put the sword back half-drawn ... he didn’t even touch me. If he’d started to beat me, I know I could have made him kill me, I know I could!” Suddenly, he recalled that she was listening, and fell silent.
She wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him what she’d been taught as a child: that suicide was not even a last resort. She couldn’t, though. They were slaves, not heroes of legend, and some things were more than even heroes could bear. She looked away, making herself very busy with the harvest until she had a better grip on herself.
It was a long time before the tension eased enough that she could ask, “What was the fight about?”
“It was that new slave, Folcred. He was taken in a raid on some little village in the Westfold, and the rest of his family was killed. He hates orcs,” said Dairuin curtly, seeming to find that all the explanation that was necessary.
“You’ll have to do better than that. Everyone in Isengard hates orcs, not excepting the other orcs. What else?” She suspected she knew the answer, but asked anyway.
Dairuin set his jaw and dug a few more feet of row before he began to fidget under her stare. “Oh, all right! If you must know, it was the things he said about you. I tried to ignore it, just like Bran said, but some of the others were starting to repeat it and I lost my stupid temper again and went for him. I’m doing better,” he added plaintively. “I wasn’t trying to kill him or anything, just make him shut up.”
Lu looked away, caught between chiding him for his lack of restraint and praising him for not losing control entirely. He had never been one to seek out a fight, but once in one, he seemed to forget all boundaries. If he hadn’t gone beyond his original intention to bloody Folcred’s nose, then he was making progress.
“Ma, I thought they were my friends...well, at least not my enemies,” he went on without noticing her dilemma. “They knew what he was saying was a lie and they still repeated it! Why would they say those things when they knew they weren’t true?”
She sighed. Dairuin might look like a grown man, but he was only ten. When it came to understanding human nature, he often seemed even younger than that. He’d been raised most of his life in the training barracks, and they studied humans only as warriors they would someday have to fight. How Men behaved among themselves was a mystery that Dairuin had only lately begun to explore. She gave the carrots a good deal more attention that they deserved as she tried to put what she needed to say into terms that would make the situation clear to a very young child without patronizing a young man.
“They know it isn’t true,” she said finally, “but sometimes people will do what their friends are doing even if it’s wrong. It’s the way we’re made. Sometimes it seems more important to be part of the group than to be kind or honest.”
“But that’s not right!” said Dairuin, jabbing the spade into the ground angrily.
Lu hoped he hadn’t just sliced the carrots in two. If Groblug wanted to do the factory bosses out of a bonus, he was not going to look kindly on any waste. As she pulled the vegetables free of the dirt, she said, “I know it’s right, but that’s the way it is. In a few days, when they’ve stopped going out of their way to be kind to Folcred, things will probably go back to the way they were before he came.”
“No, you won’t, but Dairuin....”
“Don’t call me that! I’m just an orc. I shouldn’t have a fancy Elven name,” he snarled.
“If you want to quibble, you’re more entitled to ‘Dairuin’ than you are to ‘Urgakh’. You have more human than orc blood.”
“As if that matters!”
In the eyes of the rest of the world, he was probably right, so Lu didn’t press the matter and he let it drop to return to the carrots.
He and Folcred were not allowed to stop at noon and have their share of the bread and soup. Lu watched them toiling away at opposite ends of the field and slipped a chunk of bread up her sleeve while the overseer was looking the other way. The guards were always watching for any excuse to beat one of the slaves, but Lu had had plenty of practice at smuggling food to her son. Dairuin was usually being punished for something again as soon as the prior punishment was over. Though she knew he had his full growth now, he was still learning as quickly as a human ten-year-old and his life would be hard enough without being starved into feeble-mindedness as well.
By the time everyone returned to the hut that evening, Dairuin and Folcred were both trembling with hunger. The slaves had always suspected, and Bran had recently confirmed, that the porridge of boiled grains that they were offered morning and evening was the same stuff that went into the troughs for the livestock. It was clearly chosen to be palatable to the animals rather than the humans. The latest batch was almost too bitter to eat, and even half-starved as they were, most of them could not choke it down. There was plenty left from that morning.
Lu noticed Folcred’s friend Kuy slipping a handful of food out of his shirt and winced. She opened her mouth to warn him to wait, but before she could get the words out, Gorblug came in with the bucket of water.
“Skai!” he snarled, dropping the bucket. “No food for him! Don’t you lot ever listen?”
He ground the bread into the dirt under his foot, then grabbed the man by the arm and flung him out the door. “Well, you’ll learn now,” he said, pulling the whip from his belt. “Out here, the lot of you. Now!”
Kuy took off his shirt, though his fingers shook so that he barely managed it, and handed the garment to Folcred. The boy sprang back in alarm when the half-orc snapped the whip in his direction.
“Yeah, you should jump! If I had the time, you’d be next. Pay you back proper for putting him up to it. This’ll have to do, though.” Groblug turned back to the other man, who stood bone-pale and braced for the beating.
Lu clenched her teeth and stared at a point high on the wall of stone that surrounded Isengard. It was all too easy to put herself in his place - she’d been beaten for the same thing several times before she learned caution - and each blow woke an echo on the skin of her back. Dairuin reached out and squeezed her hand.
She pulled him closer. Groblug was far gone in the enjoyment of his task, and she thought it was as safe now as it would ever be. Sheltering the movement behind her son, she pulled out the piece of bread and tucked it into his shirt. He jumped and whispered with his lips barely moving, “Not now, Ma. Are you crazy?”
“Always,” she murmured as she began to edge away from him, “Always.”
The overseer truly must have had no time to spare, because the beating lasted only a fraction of the usual time. He normally liked to drag the torment out as long as possible and display all his skill, but this time, he struck hard and quick and without any particular cunning. When he was done, he ordered them back inside curtly. Folcred got himself under the other man’s arm and helped him inside. As Lu started towards the doorway, Groblug blocked her way with his whip.
“Not so fast. I’ll bet you have something for that brat of yours, don’t you?” he said. He ran his hands over her body, and she set her teeth, expecting him to make the most of the opportunity, but he did only a hasty search. He squinted at her suspiciously, then glanced at the hut where Dairuin stood in the doorway. “If I wasn’t already late.... I’ll catch you at it next time, though. Count on it.”
He shoved her hard between the shoulder blades, knocking her through the door. Dairuin caught her and pulled her inside. The overseer gave them one last glare and stalked off.
In the hut, the injured man was already lying beside the fire.
“Build this up, will you? I need more light,” said Bran, and Folcred tossed on a few more of the twists of straw that served them as fuel. “Is there any water left?”
“No, it’s all spilled,” said one of the others. He looked doubtfully out the door. “I don’t think I could get to the river, but since Groblug is gone, I could probably get some from one of the cisterns.”
“That’ll have to do,” said Bran, and the other man picked up the bucket and hurried out.
Folcred squatted next to his injured friend, now and then glowering across the fire at Dairuin. Dairuin hunched down and pretended not to have noticed until the man returned with the water.
Bran dampened a bit of rag, then paused and squinted for a moment. “I need more light. Urgakh, put some more of the hay twists on the fire,” he said, then seemed to think the better of it after the words were already out.
Dairuin tossed a few more knots of dry grass onto the fire. As he turned away, his gaze fell on the injured man as Bran began to wipe the blood away. Lu had been so busy chasing her own thoughts about bread and beatings and the ability of Isengard to crush all noble impulses that she didn’t notice what was going on until Folcred cried out in disgust.
Oblivious to everything else around him, Dairuin was reaching slowly towards the blood that still oozed from one of the deeper cuts. If he touched it, she knew from experience that he would dip his fingers in the blood, carry it to his mouth, and suck his fingers clean with a look of utter bliss.
“I can’t help it,” he’d told her once. “It’s almost like it has a life of its own. Everything here is so grey and dull, but it’s so bright it glows. It’s so much more... real than anything else is here.”
She’d distracted him that time by remarking that when it came to things that were real and alive in Isengard, in her opinion the fleas were the clear winners. This time, though, his eyes were glassy and he didn’t seem to realize at all that his hand was moving towards the wound. No joke would break the fascination this time.
“Dairuin!” she shouted, calling him by the name that only she ever used. Interfering would only call attention to how he was different from the others, but the last thing they needed now was for him to do something entirely orc-like just when Folcred was accusing him of being an orc.
Dairuin jumped, but his hand kept reaching forward. He stared at it aghast for an instant, then whirled and thrust his finger against the hot stones of the fire pit. Lu sprang forward and snatched his hand away.
“Stop it!” she said, steering him to the water bucket to try to cool the burns.
“What else was I supposed to do?” he asked. His voice was angry, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes and he was flushed with embarrassment. “I couldn’t think of any other way to stop myself.”
She sighed. “You just need more practice. It will come with time.”
“Ha!” said Folcred triumphantly. “What did I tell you? It only takes one drop of orc blood to make an orc. Everybody knows that.”
The others shifted uncomfortably. Aside from the general unpleasantness of being forced to work with people who couldn’t get along, most of them had been present when Dairuin got his last chance to be accepted into one of the half-orc regiments. He hadn’t been able to torture the balky slave they‘d offered him, not even when the alternative was to take the other slave’s place in the hands of the torturers. The others might not like him or entirely accept him, but Lu knew they understood that there was a point beyond which the one they knew as Urgakh was not an orc at all. The others were too respectful of Folcred’s grief to argue with him about it now, but if he still said the same in the spring, he might find them less receptive.
She leaned closer to Dairuin and murmured, “Ignore him. He’s still too hurt by what happened to his family to care about the truth. You are not an orc. You just have to work harder than other people do at being a Man. Don’t worry. It will come naturally one of these days. Bran and I will help you all we can.”
He kept his eyes turned away, but he didn’t try to pull his hand out of hers as she tied the bandage. Well, perhaps later when he was calmer, he would remember her words and take comfort. They really did need to drill more, though, on ways to channel those violent impulses. Still, if his burned fingers pained him enough in the fields tomorrow, it might remind him of the price of giving in to his baser urges the next time Folcred goaded him. She sighed. There was sure to be a next time.
Bran was done cleaning the injured man’s back by then, and frowned and shook his head at Folcred as he wrung out the rag.
“Orc lover,” said Folcred, glaring back.
Before Bran or Dairuin could say anything, Kuy lifted his head off the floor and said, “Be quiet, boy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Folcred flinched away, then froze as he noticed a small piece of bread lying on the floor beside him. Lu squeezed Dairuin’s unburned hand, as certain as she could be that when her son went to eat the bread she’d saved him, it would be half its former size. Folcred seem to suspect as much too, because he glared at Dairuin again and said, “Half-orcs have no business trying to pretend to be Men because they’re not Men and they never will be.” But for all that, he kept the piece of bread as he retreated to his blanket.
Bran frowned at the boy. “What would you do, then? Encourage him to act more like an orc? Seems to me that we have plenty of those already.”
Folcred frowned and grumbled, but said nothing further. With one last glare at Dairuin, he rolled himself into his blanket and turned away with great finality.
Lu raised her eyebrows and murmured, “That’s settled, then.”
“Until they put another new man on the crew,” said Dairuin bleakly.
“You can worry about that when it happens,” said Lu. “Now get some sleep and remember that I’m very proud of you.”
“Silly Ma,” said Dairuin. As he lay down and wriggled around in search of a smooth bit of ground, he asked hesitantly, “Ma, would you tell me the story again?”
“Which story?” asked Lu, though she was pretty sure she knew.
“The one about the children of Húrin.”
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.