A popping sound from the fire broke the spell. A log crumbled and shifted, causing another log resting on it to fall off. She turned and prodded the second log lightly with a stick so that the unburned part might catch flame.
She heard them coming before she saw them, of course, her keen ears picking up the sound of their heavy running from a distance, the outcries of the earth beneath their feet. Even as her stomach rumbled excitedly, knowing that with them came food, her heart was oppressed. With the Orcs also came the chaos they carried with them: their noise and stench and violence and vulgarity—further vexation to a spirit already heavily burdened.
Little friends, if only I could fly like you. I watch you, and I wonder how long it will be. Oh Elbereth, how long must this continue? Surely I have endured enough, and I may make an end of it. But such is my cowardice, I fear…I do not…I cannot…
She looked to the sky for the birds again, but didn't see them. The starlings had gone to roost.
"Ahhhhhh…." She heard the long exhalation behind her but didn't turn around. He was coming out of his nap, stretching into wakefulness. Doubtless he too had heard the arrival of his fellows in his sleep: his ears were as pointed as her own. Shortly thereafter her thoughts were confirmed as the large half-Uruk prowled up with an oddly feline grace to stand beside her. One large hand clasped her shoulder. Once she would have shuddered at his proximity, much less his touch. Now there was only dull recognition dimly felt, a bare shifting of her body in acknowledgement that he was there. Fear, disgust, loathing—these required energy which she had in short supply. Above all else, she simply felt weary.
"They were gone a long time," said Kurbag, fingers flexing against her flesh. He lifted his angular tusked face, snuffed the air. "Can't smell them yet."
She seldom responded to anything save for direct questions, but Kurbag often talked to her nonetheless: a litany of thought and observation and reminiscence more for himself than for her. He spoke to her most freely when the others weren't around, and his tone was rarely ill natured. Once she had thought that his talkativeness might indicate a kindly temperament—that he might be persuaded to free her or at least to stop subjecting her to…to indignities. She knew now, though, that this had been foolish naivety on her part. There could be no appealing to higher ideals with Kurbag. He had none. He was an Orc, and an Orc he always would be.
"Hey Squeaker, fire's going down. Build it up," he said now, squeezing her shoulder.
Whether he meant it to or not, his grip hurt. "There is very little kindling left," she replied quietly.
"Mm." He released her and walked away to the edge of their temporary camp where a scruffy little sapling grew, only slightly taller than him. He seized it and uprooted it in a single slow motion, grunting as it came free. She flinched at the sound of the tree's anguish and tried to ignore it even as it knotted her up inside. Kurbag strode over with the sapling and began to bend and twist it off into manageable portions. When he handed piece by piece to her the sap was sticky on her hands. She fed them to the fire, waiting for each piece to catch before she put in the next. Green wood, still living. The fire would burn low, but it would also burn steadily and hot, slowly conquering the dying resistance.
"Where's Bragdagash?" Kurbag asked. "I didn't hear him go." He laughed. "I was tired afterwards—slept deep."
Thought recoiled at the reference. Her loins still ached horribly. Answer his question. "He went into the woods."
"Wanted Grymawk to do a sighting, eh?" Kurbag paced along the perimeter of the fire. "Well, I guess that makes sense. Coming near the mountains now. Good rock there: caves and crevices. Get out of all this bloody greenery. I tell you, I mislike trees, Squeaker. Make me think of your folk out there, watching."
She bent her head to peer at the red embers, her eyes watering. My folk.
The sound of the Orcs approaching was very loud now. "There they are," said Kurbag.
They had run hard, and they had run long. Exploring and playing on her own, Maevyn had never been far from her village before, but as the Orcs covered vast stretches of territory she quickly found herself borne beyond any recognizable landmarks. Despite the pain she was in, jouncing against her captor's back, she started off watching her changing surroundings eagerly. Aside from natural curiosity about places she had never seen, she wanted to watch where they were going and how they were going there. If—when she escaped, she would be able to find her way back.
But as they ran, gently rolling hill land gave way to flat. For a time they ran along a stream, but then they left that behind as well. There were no more trees after a time, and Maevyn's world became a world of only long grass below and sky over head, and the shoulders and back of the head of the Orc carrying her, and the creases in the tough olive-colored hide at the back of his broad short neck. If she were really brave she would bite him, but she knew that had to be her stupidest idea yet. He would not hesitate to kill her if she did.
The long grass as the Orcs whipped through it sent up a swishing sound. One hour turned into another until time no longer had any meaning. The sun, which had reached its zenith, began to drop slowly in the sky.
And Maevyn, even though she was awake, began to dream. Her body was still there, clinging awkwardly, holding tight, but her mind was going off somewhere else. She had strange, nonsensical flights of fancy in which the scenery would shift from grasslands to the oak tree behind her house, or she thought she heard people talking to her.
Suddenly one familiar voice distinguished itself from the others.
"Maevyn, dear heart. Hold on, my love. We aren't far."
Maevyn was confused. "Hold on to what? Mama?"
She was clinging to her father's shoulders, and he was giving her a piggyback ride. She was giggling as he bounced her lightly. How funny. She was too old for Da to be playing with her like this. Even Demmi didn't like piggyback rides anymore—hadn't for some years. Demmi, where was Demmi?
There was a strange roaring sound like some kind of animal right next to her but when she looked she saw nothing. She was on her own two feet, and she was standing in front of the woods at the base of the hill.
"Maevyn?" It was her brother's voice.
"Demmi? Hey, where've you been? I've been looking all over for you." She put her hands on her hips, very much annoyed with her brother.
"You little stupid! Where are you at?" She looked and saw the beech tree. It looked bigger, and there was a door in its trunk. The door was slightly ajar. She went over and touched it gingerly. On the other side she could hear the sound of someone breathing. She pulled the door open. "Demmi?"
Her eyes flickered open with a start. The first thing she realized was that they had stopped running. The second was that the light had grown very dim. How long was I asleep? She didn't have much time to think about that because just then her Orc lifted her off his back and dropped her.
Luckily the ground was fairly soft but without her arms free to brace herself the fall left her winded. She flopped over onto her side, gasping a little. Around her, the other Orcs were taking off their own packs and bundles, dropping them with loud growls of relief. Her own Orc, sparing her barely a glance, went over to another Orc and they started talking together in their gruff speech.
Maevyn, trying to work herself into a more upright position, rolled over onto her stomach again. Pressing her palms against the ground she tried to push herself up. Her skirt was caught under her knees and that made it difficult but finally she was able to struggle into a kneeling position. Looking down at her wrists, she winced to see how the cords bit into her skin. They had been hurting all along but seeing it made it worse. What had become a dull ache turned now into a wild, burning rawness.
Maevyn lifted her head abruptly at the sound of the voice and found herself looking into the most beautiful face she had ever seen. It belonged to an adolescent girl with fair skin and hair that shone like liquid moonlight, even in the burgeoning dark. Her eyes were a breath-taking pale blue and as Maevyn stared, transfixed by the sudden appearance of this apparition, they filled with tears. The girl raised a pale hand to Maevyn's cheek, touching it in a questioning way. "Mae govannen, mellon-nin," she whispered. She turned her head to the side, blinking away the crystalline droplets in her eyes. As she did, Maevyn saw the slender tip of a pointed ear.
Maevyn's first words were perceptive, albeit highly unimaginative. "You're an Elf," she said, gawking a little.
The girl nodded, then slowly faced her again. "I am sorry," she said in curiously accented Westron. "I did not...it has been long since...Greetings to you, my friend."
Maevyn looked her up and down. "I've never seen an Elf before." She frowned and looked around her. "I never saw Orcs before, either." Then she looked back at the Elf girl, realizing something. "You're not tied up."
"No, they...they know that I will not try to leave." Her face flushed a little and she lowered her eyes as though she were ashamed.
Maevyn was puzzled by this reaction. Granted, she herself planned to escape at the first possible opportunity, but the Orcs were scary—she could understand being too frightened to try. "Are there any more like us here? I mean, people like you and me?"
"No. There has only been myself, and now you. Oh, but you are hurting," she exclaimed suddenly, taking Maevyn's bound hands in hers. Her touch was cool and comforting—nonetheless, Maevyn winced as delicate fingers traced the cords around her wrists. "Your skin is very tender." She found where the cord was knotted and began to untie it.
"Oi oi oi!" Maevyn's Orc came back in a hurry, followed by the Orc he had been talking to. "What the fuck do you think you're doing, Squeaker!"
"These bonds are too tight," said the Elf girl. "They are hurting her."
"Good." He grinned evilly. "Let them."
"The skin is inflamed," she insisted. "Her wrists are swollen. If they are not untied she could lose the use of her hands."
"She's not going to need them for long."
"Not even long enough to make your own work easier?" She looked around at the skin bundles lying on the ground.
He opened his mouth but was interrupted by the second Orc, who suddenly spoke up. "Why not?" he asked. "She might as well be useful, Grushak."
Grushak scowled and said something in Orkish to which the second Orc responded in kind. Grushak turned to Maevyn, catching her roughly by her bound wrists with one hand and hauling her upright. With the other hand he pulled Demmi's knife out of his belt. She started to yank away but his grip was firm as he slid the blade between her hands and sawed upwards, cutting the cord through. She clasped one freed wrist against the stinging night air and stared at him.
He pointed with the knife at the bundles. "Go open those." He didn't stay to watch her, instead turning and lumbering away, muttering to the other Orc as he did so.
Quickly the Elf girl touched her shoulder. "Come, come and help me. Do as he says. Come!"
Maevyn only hesitated a moment. It galled her to obey the Orc, but then too, obedience would gain her time. Besides, the older girl seemed so anxious already and Maevyn didn't want to make her more so. "I'm Maevyn. How about you? That big Orc called you Squeaker. That's not really your name, is it?" she asked dubiously as she followed the Elf's graceful steps. She was proud that she only stumbled a little as she did so, although her legs were cramped and sore.
Squeaker. That doesn't sound like the names in the stories.
Then again, she had never met a real Elf before to know what was true and what wasn't.
"They do not try to pronounce my real name. It is Eleluleniel." The Elf girl picked up a bundle.
"Pretty name!" exclaimed Maevyn, delighted by the sequence of lilting vowels. This girl was like the Elves in the stories! "But I'm not sure I can say it. Lelelu—"
"EH-leh-lu," she corrected. "Eleluleniel." She smiled. "My smallest sister, she could not say my name when she was little. She used to call me Leni, and my other sisters called me that too."
"LEN-nee. I can say that. That's easy." Maevyn tried to pick up a bundle but dropped it. She tried again but fumbled badly. "My fingers aren't working."
"Your hands were tied for a long time," said Leni. She set her bundle down and took Maevyn's wrists in her hands. "I am sorry," she said as the younger girl flinched but nonetheless chafed them gently. "The ropes tore the skin," she said, and shook her head. "They are cruel, these Orcs. You are not accustomed to their cruelty as I am."
Maevyn's hands felt warm, even though the Elf's own hands were cool as she rubbed them. Though the pain was still there, it subsided somewhat under Leni's administrations. "How old are you?" Maevyn asked as she would any other girl or boy she had just met.
"I am thirty-three," said Leni.
"Oh—" Maevyn had been just beginning to feel comfortable with the Elf and was sad to hear her new friend tell such a patent falsehood. She pulled her hands away. "You shouldn't lie. You can't be more than a few years older than me."
Leni laughed, and her laughter was like the tinkling of little bells. "But I am not lying, Maevyn. My race ages differently from yours—we grow more slowly than humans do."
"Yes. How old are you now?"
"I'm nine," said Maevyn, a little chagrined. Nine, to the Elf girl's thirty-three. She must seem like such a baby.
"Here, pick this up," said Leni, handing Maevyn the bundle she had put down before picking up the one Maevyn had dropped, as well as a third. "Let us take this over to the fire—they will be wanting us to cook it. When I was nine, Maevyn, do you know how tall I was? Why, I barely reached your waist. I was twenty-four by the time I finally reached your height." She looked understandingly at Maevyn's downcast expression. "And do you know, a few years shall see you passing me?" Maevyn looked up and Leni gave her an encouraging smile. "When you have grown to womanhood, it will take me another ten years to catch up."
Maevyn cocked her head. "So long?" she said, and from feeling childish next to the Elf girl's maturity she went to feeling sorry for her instead. Time passed slowly enough without another ten years added on. "That's too bad. I can hardly wait to grow up. No one will be able to push me around then."
"Hey! I'm fuckin' starving here," came a cross voice from behind them.
"That's Rukshash," said Leni. "We can take his straight to him. He does not care to have his meat cooked."
"You mean he likes it raw? That's yucky!" exclaimed Maevyn.
Leni shrugged. "He is old," she said as her fingers nimbly undid the cord binding the hide together. She lifted a bloody woolen haunch. "Go take it to him.
Maevyn took it squeamishly. It was heavier than she had expected it to be and the sheep's hoof was still attached. "Which—"
"He is the old Orc. The one with the big scar on his face. Go, he will not hurt you. He is tired from the day and will just want his dinner."
Maevyn turned and saw the Orc sitting against a large boulder. She steeled herself up and walked over to him. "Uh—"
"Damn it, Squeaker, you take long enough." Rukshash glanced at her in annoyance, then blinked. "Shit, you're not the Elven bint! You're Grushak's brat." She held out the leg of mutton dumbly and he took it from her with a dark clawed hand, still peering at her, his good eye narrowed. "Put you to work, have they? That'll be her doing, no doubt," he said, looking past Maevyn. He chuckled softly and malignantly as he eyed the Elf girl. "Oh, I'm sharp, I am—I see how it goes. Lonely, that one is. Wants to keep you alive. Selfish, that one—more merciful to gut you now." His eye turned back to Maevyn appraisingly. "Haven't had man flesh in a while. Tastes like pork. You're a young'un too." A slow, disturbing smile revealed decaying black teeth. "Ought to be tender."
She backed away from his hungry grin. It took every fiber of her being to keep from running away. Instead, she forced herself to turn around and walk back rapidly to the fire.
Leni was kneeling besides the fire. She had pushed a number of stones into the fire and was using a sharp stick to lay raw and bloody meat on them. "You bring bundles to me and undo them," she said to Maevyn. "I will cook the meat." Maevyn did as Leni said, bringing bundles one by one until the other girl told her to stop. "The others can be left for later," she said. "The meat will spoil quickly, but that does not bother them."
"Where's the grub, damn it!" By now the Orcs had come hulking around them, rudely demanding their food. Leni offered them the first haunches of goat and pig: charred and blackened on the outside, bloody-rare within. Maevyn, shrinking at Leni's side, stared at the way the Orcs sank their teeth into the meat and tore it away with violent swings of their heads.
Leni saw her looking and murmured quietly, "They do not care that it is not cooked all the way through. They just want their meat kissed with flame. Do not eat any of the pork—I cannot be sure of cooking it thoroughly and it will make both of us sick. They can eat it, though. Their stomachs are lined with iron." She pointed at a number of smaller scraps of meat that she had torn away with her fingers, laying on a stone at the periphery of the flames. "These are pieces of lamb. Will you share them with me?"
Maevyn started to shake her head. Bloody memories of the butchering made her stomach churn, but it also growled to be fed. Her hunger was not to be denied. "When will they be ready?" she asked a bit miserably. She cringed, aware that she was whining.
Leni didn't seem to notice. "Another ten minutes. It takes them longer to cook this way, but it will be more thorough without being burnt."
She was as good as her word. When she judged the lamb to be done she took her stick and speared a chunk, holding it towards Maevyn. Maevyn looked timidly at the meat Leni proffered but took it delicately. When she bit into it her eyes widened. She ate every scrap that the Elf gave her and licked the dripping fat from her fingers. "No more," said Leni after awhile. "It will give you a belly ache and you will be sick in the night.
It was now quite dark and the flickering firelight gave a haunting cast to the Elf girl's face. It also made the Orcs more frightening, casting weird shadows on their harsh features, glinting off their teeth and eerie eyes. They were all closer to the fire now with the settling cool of night: noisy, talking and laughing and sometimes yelling at each other in their snarling tongue, and sometimes they would touch the weapons they carried in a menacing way, but nothing ever came of it as seeming confrontations broke up in raucous laughter. A few of them, even with all the racket, actually seemed to be sleeping—their eyes shut, their mouths slack and drooling, stomachs distended with their quick gorging.
Leni rose, touching Maevyn's hand lightly as she did, and Maevyn got up as well. The Elf girl stepped through the circle of Orcs and she followed nervously. Several of the Orcs glanced after them briefly before returning to the ongoing talk—one, though, Maevyn saw, was staring after them. More specifically, after Leni. His upper lip was curled in a scowl, and hostility emanated from his body.
Leni led her to a small curling pile of furs beneath a fragrant tree. "This is where I sleep. Come. You can keep me warm."
"Who was the one looking at you?" asked Maevyn. "The one with the funny-colored eyes."
"That is Nazluk. He does not like me." She shrugged in the darkness. "Well. None of them like me, really. Their kind like little beyond cruelty and the raw metals from which they craft their tools and weaponry. Beyond that they hate nearly all things under the sun. But it is said that Orcs do hate Elves in especial for that they were originally create of our flesh—Elven folk taken and tortured and twisted by Morgoth into vile shapes, long long ago—and they resent us for the beauty and the goodness that was lost in their unmaking."
Maevyn's mouth made a surprised circle in the dark. This was a tale she hadn't heard. "Orcs used to be Elves?"
"That is the legend. Nazluk hates me with all the force of this old hatred and would be glad to be rid of me. The others tolerate me, though, and do not object to my presence."
"They have become accustomed to having a slave, I think. I give them little trouble and make myself useful to them. Originally, their impulses were much like Nazluk's and most of them wished to see me killed. Kurbag would not do it, though, and chose to keep me for himself. The others stopped pressing him; now only Nazluk continues."
"Why did Kurbag want to keep you? Which one is he?" asked Maevyn.
"Oh..." Leni's voice sounded strange all of a sudden. "Let us speak of that in the morning, shall we? It is too dark to try to tell you which names go to which Orcs. I can point them out to you in daylight."
"All right." Maevyn yawned, then lay there, blinking. "What are these trees?" she asked, looking up at the tree they were under and the number of others by their encampment. They were like no trees Maevyn had ever seen before, roughly triangular in shape with pointy tops that towered blackly against the dark sky and the stars overhead. "They have needles on them!" she said, astonished.
"They are pine," said Leni. She reached up and bent a bough down towards Maevyn. "See? They do not have leaves like other trees but these green needles instead. And they smell spicy and sweet."
Maevyn took a whiff. Her nose wrinkled at the pungent odor. "I miss my trees," she said. "We have a lot of trees, back home. Beeches and oaks and elms. I climb them, so very high. I had a hiding place in one—I wouldn't've been caught if I hadn't been stupid and left it."
"I miss my trees as well," said Leni softly. "They all knew my name, and I used to know all of their names—the secret ones, old ones they told me on quiet summer evenings such as this. I am beginning to forget some of them." Barely audible: "And no one calls me by my name anymore."
Maevyn grabbed her hand. "Leni!" she whispered. "I won't be here in the morning. I want to get away. When it's darker, and they're all asleep. Come with me!"
"Foolish child. You speak madness." The Elf girl stroked her arm gently. "I tell you this: there is no escape from them, Maevyn. Orc ears are keen and sharp. They can hear us speaking now, quiet as we are and loud as they are, even if they cannot make out the sense of what we say to one another. They see in the dark like cats, and they move quickly. But most of all, their sense of smell is strong. If somehow they missed your leaving, think you they would not snuff you out as soon as they found you gone?"
Maevyn was silent. Then: "If I leave now...they'll kill me."
"And if I leave now...I can't kill him. I can't kill Grushak." She felt the Elf girl's stillness in the dark. "The big one, the one that was carrying me. He killed my Mama and my Da. Prob'ly killed my brother too. I cut him with Demmi's knife and he wants to kill me. I don't know why he hasn't done it yet, Leni."
"He wants to play with you first."
Maevyn scowled. "That's his own stupid mistake, then. He can play with me all he wants, as long as I get to make him die."
"You do not know what you are saying!" Leni's tone was unexpectedly harsh, startling them both. Just as suddenly, it softened again. "Maevyn, you are small and do not know everything there is to know about the world. But I tell you this. If you want to live, you will be careful. You will not fight them and you will not disobey them. You will do whatever they want of you, and even what they do not know they want of you. You will not anger them. They can hurt you badly, and they kill without compunction. You understand this?"
Maevyn wanted to argue, to say something really mean, to call Leni a coward. But the Elf girl's voice had frightened her a little, speaking of experience beyond her comprehension. "I understand," she said sullenly. Her body pulled in on itself and she wrapped her arms around her knees, hunching forward in a stubborn way. "But I'm not going to cry for them! I don't care what they do. They're stupid and they're ugly and they smell bad, and I'm not giving them that."
"So small, so brave." Leni sounded sad as she brushed Maevyn's cheek with her smooth fingers. "You say you will not cry for them, Maevyn? Do not make that the only thing you live for."
The words Eleluleniel (Leni) spoke to Maevyn were Sindarin. "Im..." translates as "I…" and "Mae govannen, mellon-nin" as "Well met, my friend." At least I think I got that right.