14. Orkish Ethics
"Wonder what that bastard Dushgar is about," said Mushog, picking his teeth.
"Counting his spoils, most likely," said Lagdush. "Thieving scum."
They had finished eating by now. Comfortable and well-breakfasted, they were ill-inclined to move and talk had turned to the Orc band they'd encountered the other day. "Eh, Kurbag. You said they also had a run-in with Elves?" Mushog asked his friend.
Kurbag nodded. "That's what one of them said, anyhow. Sounded like a talker, but I figure he was telling the truth."
"If it had just gone down a little differently, we'd've shown 'em what," groused Lagdush.
Kurbag blinked. "Who? The Golug-hai, or Dushgar's lads?"
"Sha, Lagdush, you take things too personally," said Bragdagash. "It was Nazluk and Kurbag they dicked over and that wasn't anything we wouldn't have done in their place. Dushgar and his boys get along same as we do. Besides, he didn't have to let 'em go on their way. Could just as easily have cut them down where they stood and rifled their dead bodies: had less trouble than the other way."
It was casually enough that he spoke of how things might have ended for the two unfortunates, but Kurbag didn't take offense. Bragdagash was right, after all. "He told us how to find you again," agreed Kurbag. "Gave us the directions to your last camp."
"He did, did he?" The Orc chieftain narrowed his eyes. "Now that's interesting. Don't know what to think of that, if that was a good faith gesture on his part or him looking to piss me off. Probably both, knowing Dushgar. I'll have to get that out of him next time we see each other."
"You and he knew each other back when, didn't you, boss?" said Grushak. "I heard you say as much when we had our little get-together."
"That's right. We fought under the White Hand back in the War. Just raw warriors together, same division. All Uruk-hai, of course, because that's the way it was back then."
"Just back then, eh?" said Nazluk in a skeptical tone. He shrugged when Bragdagash looked at him. "Only I couldn't help noticing the company your old friend keeps, that's all." No snaga faces among them.
Bragdagash shrugged. "He makes different choices than I would in his position, I will say that. He has his own way of doing things, and it's worked well enough for him so far. But then again, I have my way, and it's worked for me. I'm not partial to the kind of big band that Dushgar favors, for example. Myself, I think it's better to keep things fairly small and flexible. Easier to maneuver."
He wasn't talking about the all-Uruk business, Nazluk noted dourly, remembering again how the other lot had ignored him and deferred to Kurbag in his place. Folk might say things had changed since the War, but Nazluk knew better. Make a claim like that and there will always be a Dushgar on hand to prove you wrong.
As he mused on the injustice of it all his eyes strayed toward the Elf girl again. She was sitting where Kurbag had left her, staring off into the trees as if she yearned to disappear among them. Nazluk allowed himself a small tight smile. If she didn't try to bolt it was just a matter of time before somebody offed her. Nazluk hadn't missed the bothered look on Bragdagash's face when he heard that Kurbag had fucked the Elf earlier. He'd half hoped Bragdagash would order her killed out of hand, but it wasn't surprising that he hadn't. It would have made him look bad with the others: there was an understanding when you took a captive that it was your own business what you did, whether you offered to share or not, and interfering there was just bad form…
But Bragdagash would have something to say, Nazluk knew, if she lingered beyond a day or so. She shouldn't even be here now, not three days after Kurbag had taken her. A few choice words on the subject, Nazluk knew, would easily find the others in agreement, and he planned to say plenty.
Bragdagash was telling some anecdote from his soldiering days, an exploit in which he and Dushgar had both taken part. "This was after the Hand fell, and I will have you know it was a sticky business, what with the strawheads riding the land and even the bloody trees out to get us. A band of us were holed up in an old redoubt: a Man place emptied out years back, not so very far from Isengard. Some stonework still standing but it was mostly scree and, trapped there as we were, you can be sure we soon knew every nook and heap and cranny stone by stone. That's why Dushgar and I were so surprised when he found the cellar. He tripped over this rusty ring sticking out of a stone slab in the ground and when he'd finished cussing about it he called me over and we pulled the stone away. We went down in there and we found…" He trailed off, looking slyly at his audience.
Pryszrim seemed alarmed at the pause. "What? What did you find?"
"Swag of some sort." Lagdush affected boredom, but it was obvious that he was hooked.
Bragdagash grinned. "You might say that. Casks. Barrels and barrels stacked against the walls, and all of them empty. We did find some tall jars, though, and when we lifted their lids, would you believe it! There was still drink in there! Well. Of course the only right thing was to tell the others of our discovery, and that's just what Dushgar and I did." He smirked. "After we'd downed the lot, of course."
There were snickers. "I'll bet that pleased them to no end," said Grushak dryly.
"Oh yes, and they showed us their pleasure too, especially our commander. He took it out of both our hides, but we were too drunk to feel the good of it. For the next few days the others were clambering all over, hoping to find an iron ring of their own…but that was the last proper drought any of us would taste for some time to come. After that Dushgar and I were limited to ditch water until our commander finally figured it was safe enough for all of us to move on, and right foul it tasted after our bit of fun in the cellar."
The others laughed at the end of his story, particularly Rukshash. His good eye gleamed as he said, "That reminds me of one I heard back in the day, when the tide turned near the end of the War. Stop me if you've heard this story. Some Harad boys were caught in a tight spot. Hemmed in by Gondorians, and they knew they weren't going to escape; it was either surrender or stay where they were and be flattened. Or starve, which was also a strong possibility at that point, since they'd been on short rations for ten days and none at all for two. But! It so happened that they still had a quantity of alcohol on hand…"
The others were nodding. They had heard this story before but it was a good one, and Rukshash told it engagingly. They listened, grinning, as he continued:
"So they came to a decision amongst themselves and, rather than let the booze fall into the hands of the Gondorians, they drank it all. And when the last drop was swallowed those boys came out from their hidey-hole in one last mad rush, screaming and leaping forward into the arrows and the naked swords of the soldiers of Gondor—"
"Ya harri hey YA HOI!!" the entire band joined in with a raucous shout.
Rukshash laughed and took a long swig from his drinking skin, as if acknowledging those Harad boys and their final charge. Wiping his mouth afterward with the back of his hand, he sighed in pure satisfaction. "Ahhh…that's the way to go. Slaughtered to the last, of course, but I'll bet they went out happy."
"It's like when folk argue whether it's better to die drunk or die fighting. Better to do both," declared Mushog.
The old Orc chuckled appreciatively. "Eh lad, you have the right of it there."
The topic turned to dying then, and the best way to die, and the deaths that they had seen and had dealt out. It went on for some time before Kurbag got up. Nazluk had been watching him and had marked the way Kurbag glanced from time to time in the direction of the Elf girl. "Huh," Nazluk remarked once the half-Uruk was out of immediate earshot, looking after him as if just noticing that he had left. "I was joking earlier, when I said that about him feeding her."
"What?" asked Iggrut. He looked in the direction Nazluk was looking.
Kurbag had, in fact, taken a chunk of the meat with him. "All the better to fatten her with," said Rukshash with sly humor and the others snickered. There was a sense of anticipation among them, a shared thirst for blood. Even if they didn't get a go at the Elf girl themselves, watching was fun in its own right; then too, many of them had the same curiosity about the taste of Elf flesh that Nazluk had felt.
"You're probably right," Nazluk said, allowing a trace of doubt in his words, enough to make some of them look at him curiously. He shrugged, dropping his voice a little. "Taking her made sense at the beginning, of course: we might not have escaped otherwise, yes? I just don't understand why he didn't kill her later, when we were well clear of it and after he had his sport. It held us up, him dragging her with us…"
Eleluleniel stared at the piece of meat Kurbag held out to her. On one side it was black and charred. On the other side it was just black. All of the old tales clamored in her head, even over the hunger she felt. "What is it?"
"Horse from a few days ago. We killed its rider. Same day we got split up, though that happened later."
How old this made it she did not know. She was still coping with its provenance. Not the flesh of Elves, then, or of Men, but little better to the folk she sprang from. "We do not eat horses," she said faintly, too stunned to think that she might offend him.
Kurbag wasn't offended but interested. "Huh. Why not?"
"We esteem them. They carry us. We hold them to be beautiful, wise…"
"I'm told that pigs are smarter," Kurbag remarked. It was Shrah'rar who had said that once, and Kurbag hadn't cared to ask him more on the subject. Everyone knew what Shrah'rar was. The Elf hadn't made a move toward the meat, though her eyes were still fixed on it. He held it closer and she pulled back. "Best eat it. You're hungry, aren't you?"
She was. And the flesh came of an animal, and the animal was dead, and it was not Man or Elf. She took it from him carefully. Perhaps she would not have eaten it despite her hunger, except that he was watching her.
He kept watching, even after, when she shoved it back at him and scrambled to her feet. He didn't try to stop her. It was pretty obvious that she wasn't trying to escape.
She knelt some distance from the sleeping area, still gagging. The sight of what she had brought up made her want to retch further but there was nothing more in her stomach. She was oblivious to Kurbag's approach until he spoke. "You'd better eat the rest of it anyway. There's nothing else, after all." His voice sounded doubtful, though.
She gasped, fingers whitening on her knees as she tried to gain control of her body. She was nauseated by his closeness as much as by the food he had given her. "Why?" she managed.
"Why would you feed me?"
He stared down at her. Her shoulders were trembling. She looked small: smaller than she actually was, even. "Don't you want to eat?" he asked. She shook her head, which could have meant anything at that moment, but Kurbag only assumed she was answering his question. "So wait on it, then. It's here when you do." He dropped it in the grass beside her.
She shuddered, drew a few quick, short breaths as she felt her body settling. Her hair hung loose about her face, and a few strands were crushed against her forehead with perspiration. She touched them with her fingers and made herself straighten, pushing her hair back over her shoulders so that it hung down her back. Somehow this simple action seemed to steady her. She exhaled and, turning her head, looked up at him. "No," she said in a calmer voice. "Why are you keeping me alive?"
He shrugged. He'd been staring at her hair as she handled it, caught between wanting to touch it and wanting to look.
When it became evident that he was not going to say anything she said, "I did not think you would do that to me again. What you did last night…you said you would not. Did you realize how much it hurt?" She felt foolish the moment it came out of her mouth. It was what she might have said to rebuke a child for cruelty to a kitten or some other creature. But a little child would have understood what she said. There was no understanding in Kurbag's strange eyes.
"It didn't hurt me," he said matter-of-factly.
"Where's Mushog?" he asked the others later, when he returned to the fire. The Orcs still there were considerably fewer in number. It was only the smaller snaga Orcs now, which wasn't surprising as they tended to be less active during the day than their larger fellows. They'd also just had a heavy meal, which contributed to their lassitude. Pryszrim and Rukshash were napping by the fire while Grushak, who was large but still of the same temperament when it came to daytime activity, snored under a nearby tree. It fell to Shrah'rar and Iggrut to respond.
"Gone with Lagdush to relieve Grymawk," said Shrah'rar. "He never came off night shift."
"Prob'ly fell asleep," said Iggrut.
"Well I ask you, is it so surprising I did?" came a cranky voice as another small Orc joined them. "Up all night, no one ever came this morning, I'm only flesh and blood after all…" Grymawk flung himself down beside the fire, knocking the outsized crossbow on his back askew. He had to stand to adjust it before dropping down again in a huff. "And of course I miss everything that happened after that, so now I have to get whatever was told secondhand: bloody unfair, I call it…"
"Will someone shove something in his facehole?" muttered Grushak from under his tree. Grymawk's complaining had woken him.
"Here, chew on this. If you'll just shut up long enough we'll soon give you all the dirt you can stomach." Shrah'rar pushed drink toward Grymawk as well.
The goblin needed little urging. His cheeks soon bulged with food, chased with Orc-draught; swallowing, he groaned happily. "That is better. Didn't realize how hungry I was. Funny how that goes, innit?" Eating at only a slightly more moderate pace, he listened as his fellows related, in somewhat abridged form, the talk there had been the night before and what Nazluk and Kurbag had to say for themselves, following with the revelation of earlier that morning.
Kurbag did not contribute to any of this. He had made himself scarce, doubtless off after Mushog and Lagdush, so Shrah'rar and Iggrut were somewhat freer in their speech than they would have been had the tall half-Uruk still been near.
"That is odd," said Grymawk, swallowing his current mouthful. "That's not like anything I've heard."
"Odd? Bloody creepy if you ask me," said Shrah'rar. "I think there's something witchy about her. Nazluk about said as much."
Grymawk tore off another bite and chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. "I wouldn't be surprised," he said with a shrug. "She was glowing last night."
"She'd this sheen about her. Only a little, mind you, but it was there."
"Garn! You're making it up," said Iggrut.
Grymawk looked annoyed. "I'm serious here. When I was on guard last night. I heard something coming, you see, and I could see this bit of a gleaming. I thought it was foxfire, though it wasn't so bright, but it was something like that and it gave me a turn, coming through the trees like it was. Of course then they got nearer and I could see Kurbag and Nazluk, and then a little Golug with them, and after that I didn't have time to sit and think about anything else. But it was coming off of her, is what I'm saying. Her face and her hair, and any bit of skin that was showing."
"You're shitting us," said Iggrut. "We didn't see anything like that and we saw her last night too, remember."
"I told you, it wasn't that bright. It was very faint. You saw her by firelight, you wouldn't have noticed. I saw her in the trees."
They took a moment to digest this. Pryszrim, who was awake now, had propped himself up on one elbow and was listening with his large ears cocked, his eyes and mouth wide open.
"Witchy," said Shrah'rar again. "What's the point of that, do you suppose?"
"Could be useful, maybe? For them as can't see in the dark?" Pryszrim offered in that over-eager way he had of joining a conversation. "Bein' shiny-like, you know – you'd never lose your way…"
"Nor would any arrows trained on you neither." Iggrut gave him a disdainful look. "Golug are prey. If they're bright at night, it just makes them easier to catch and kill. If it's not just a story, that is."
Grymawk shrugged. "It's no skin off my nose whether you believe me or not. I know what I saw, that's all."
"Simple to prove it one way or another," said Iggrut, standing and casting a purposeful look in the Elf's direction. The others glanced at each other before getting up as well.
Eleluleniel had tried again after Kurbag left to eat the meat that he had given her. She knew that she needed the sustenance, but it was no good: she felt her gorge rise at each mouthful and could not go beyond a fifth. She had failed to say grace before the beginning of her foul meal. Make it enough, she thought in quiet prayer as she willed what she had eaten to stay down. There was a rancid sick taste at the back of her throat, though, and she did not know if prayer would be enough.
A sound of some sort made her turn her head. One of the goblin-Orcs was approaching her with an air of intent: a green-skinned creature with a crooked nose and cunning black eyes. He stopped and cocked his head a little, looking her up and down deliberately. "Hoi Grymawk!" he called back over his shoulder. "Nar shofanog Golug-kulamak flasog-lat."
Three other goblins trudged up behind him. They were gray-skinned and the one speaking was the smallest of the Orcs that she had seen. All four of them were on the small side, shorter than her, but their bodies were formidable, compactly made; they had the same sharp nails and teeth as their larger fellows, and they were all of them armed.
"Skai—flasog-lat lat hom jashatob—"
She did not know why they were looking at her or what they were saying. Slowly, carefully, she shifted her body so that she was facing them, preparing to defend herself, but she knew there wasn't much she could do against four Orcs and their knives.
"Lat-marr, Iggrut. Burz-ishi shof, nar lata-dil."
"Hurr, nar marr…Kaum-uuk kulamak flas-lat?" The green Orc began to move, pacing around her. The others moved in the opposite direction. Before she even realized what they were doing the ringleader barked a sharp directive.
They were on her in the same instant. She fought them blindly but it was no use. In a raucous onslaught they brought her down, even as she tried to knock them back, to pull free. An arm whipped across her throat and wrenched her head around with a suddenness that brought stars to her eyes. She could feel how the rest of her body continued to struggle while from the shoulders up she was pinned like that, her face pressed into a skinny Orkish thigh. Like a fish… she thought, seeing herself distantly as she jerked in their hands. Their voices argued above her. They were speaking two tongues now, an ugly mix of their language and Common, but it made no difference. She couldn't understand a word of what they said. And then her head was hauled back painfully and a knife was in the ringleader's hand. She heard her own wail rising in her ears.
Shouts of anger and a black-clad figure waded into them, flinging two of the goblins off her; the other two quickly scrambled aside and stood at some distance, mingled alarm and amusement on their faces. One of them was the green-skinned Orc with the knife. Kurbag shouted at him and he answered back in a cheerful, impudent way. He held up his other hand now and she saw what he held in it. It was a lock of pale hair.
"You idiot! What for?" demanded Kurbag, switching to Westron.
"Because we wanted to see, yes?" the Orc called Iggrut said right back as he gestured with his trophy.
Her hand went at once to her head, but her hair was long and she could not find the place where it had been cut away. That was what he'd wanted? Only her hair? But as Kurbag and Iggrut continued to snap at one another it became clear that, yes, this was the reason for the assault. She was completely bewildered. That was why they had all descended upon her at once? She would have given it to them gladly enough to keep them from attacking her! The whole thing was ridiculous, and even funnier than four Orcs attacking her for a mere lock of hair was Kurbag's own outrage, as if he was the one who had been robbed.
Evidently this was exactly the way he felt. "You'd no call to do that!" he told them hoarsely. "That's mine! Fucking hands off!"
The others fled the scene as if they were so many naughty children, though Iggrut made a more deliberate exit, a decided swagger in his step. Kurbag turned and began at once to examine her, looking to see if the knife had cut her, running his fingers quickly through her hair. Unlike Eleluleniel, he found the place where her hair had been cut away immediately, and he swore overhead in stormy wrath. Beneath his heavy hands the Elf girl shook with helpless laughter.
"That reminds me of one I heard back in the day, when the tide turned near the end of the War. Stop me if you've heard this story. Some Harad boys were caught in a tight spot..." This is swiped wholesale from a real incident during WWII. Instead of the Haradrim and the Gondorians, it was the Japanese and the U.S. 6th Marine Division, in Guam. It seemed like the kind of story Rukshash and his pals would enjoy, and I enjoyed the chance to refer to their old allies, the Haradrim.
Ya harri hey YA HOI!! This is an Orkish exclamation that appears in different forms in both The Hobbit and The Two Towers. It seems to be meaningless, essentially just a rousing cry of encouragement or excitement.
Hoi Grymawk! Nar shofanog Golug-kulamak flasog-lat. "Oi Grymawk! I'm not seeing this Elf-glow you're talking about."
Dautas-draut, pa-gog'om! "That's because it's daylight, dumbass!
Skai—flasog-lat lat hom jashatob— "Skai—you're talking out of your ass—"
Lat-marr, Iggrut. Burz-ishi shof, nar dil-ishi. "You're stupid, Iggrut. In the night you would see, not in the sun."
Hurr, nar marr…Kaum-uuk kulamak flas-lat? "Ha, I'm not stupid…You say her hair glowed as well?"
I don't actually know whether Tolkien's Elves glow or not, though I have checked the books and asked other readers. Some Elves do but that could be because they have seen Aman. Leni has never been there: she is Silvan, just a little Wood Elf. I've always imagined her having a faint luminescence about her in the dark but this is up for interpretation.
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.