3. The Scent of Fear
It was early in the morning when he awoke, squinting his eyes against the pale sunshine. Birdsong filled his pointed ears, and his nostrils flared with the smell of leaf litter and earth and growing things. His arm was numb from the way he'd slept. He sat up and moved it in a repeated chopping motion from the elbow to make the blood circulate freely.
Nazluk was asleep on the ground a short distance from him, dark body curled near double. He had kept guard for much of the night but weariness had finally done the Orc in. He lay motionless and insensible, or seemed so initially—as Kurbag watched he grimaced and flinched in his sleep. A small ray of sun had slanted through the branches and was traveling over one skinny shoulder.
Kurbag stood and stretched, enjoying the sun for his own part. Kurbag was not Uruk as Nazluk had called him scornfully but half-Uruk: spawn of an Uruk and an Orc. His gray skin and some of his features resembled those of a regular Orc, but he had the size and general constitution of an Uruk. He took pleasure in the day as an Orc like Nazluk does not, and his eyes, though useless in the dark, were possessed of great acuity in daylight. Looking up he perceived the delicate articulation of individual leaves as they whispered against each other. Looking forward he remarked the gnarled surface of the tree in front of him, the brown bark wrinkled and rough and seamed with irregular grooves.
Kurbag got up and, walking over, leaned into the tree. He rubbed his shoulder against it in a slow, satisfying swirl, then turned to scrape back and arse against it in a full-bodied motion for a good long scratch. Afterward his bladder informed him that he had to pass water. Pissing on the tree would also piss off Nazluk, but pragmatism reminded him that he would have to endure the reek while he was waiting for the Orc to wake up. Kurbag wandered off in search of a suitable place to urinate, and to see if he couldn't get a better sense of where they were.
When he found the road he felt a prickling at the back of his neck.
Human roads are smoother affairs than the kind of roads that Orcs, left to their own devices, will make for themselves—human roads are wide and made for heavy traffic; they are generally fairly straight and Orcs find them a quick and cushy means of getting from one place to another (so long as they have no company from other travelers, of course.) Both Orkish and human roads, however, share a fundamental similarity: they are incursions on the natural world, avenues of passage made by systematically covering, cutting, uprooting, razing or otherwise removing anything that hinders progress. A road, even the smoothest and cushiest of roads, is a kind of violence to the landscape.
This road was not like that. It was a slender road and slipped through the trees in an organic way, less as if folk had made it through travel or industry than as if they had asked the trees to kindly grow farther apart on either side and so create a convenient means of passage. He would almost have judged it not a road at all but some happy accident of tree growth if he hadn't smelled travel on it—recent travel—and spotted a few mounds of horse dung in the middle way. Glancing to either side, he went into the road and knelt for a closer look. Fresh, made in the past hour. Standing, he snuffed the air again. Horses, but no people—no human people, that is, but there was a scent in the air nonetheless: a kind of nameless woodsy odor that was not the woods.
Elves, thought Kurbag, and his stomach gave a lurch. He had never seen an Elf but he had seen their arrows now, seen what they did to a body. Seen what they'd made of his shield mate. They had riddled Molurtz in seconds, and the other Orc had never had a chance.
Kurbag was no stranger to death: often had he seen it dealt and often had he dealt it. But the manner of dealing he had witnessed the night before, neither seeing nor smelling the foe, never hearing the sound of your own ending…it was not natural, and it filled his heart with a superstitious unease, particularly coupled with all he'd heard of Elves. Stuff to chill your blood, it was, because for every joke about pansy-assed leaf-eared weaklings there was another kind of tale entirely…that of the tall Golug warrior with eyes of winter and taut bow drawn near double; of fierce tree-watchers skilled in dwimmer-craft who wielded spells as well as arrows, ensorcelled the sword from your hand and put a trance on you so you stood and waited for your end to fall.
Molurtz had been an idiot, but he had also been a warrior. Had he felt the arrows pierce his body, or were his last sensations those of a dreamer, detached and drifting, dulled by Elven magic?
Elves had made this strange and creepy road, and Elves had traveled on it less than an hour before.
Not liking how exposed he felt at that moment but not wanting to just slink off into the trees like he was scared or something, Kurbag did the predictable thing—he undid the front of his breeches and sprayed the path before him in a quick defiant sweep. Then, slipping his member away again, he headed back to wake Nazluk and to tell of his discovery.
They stood together as their family disappeared through the trees, Eleluleniel waving wistfully. She did not have the powerful yearning for travel that Nevhithien had: she thought of Rivendell without hungering for it. Still, she could not help feeling a little down to be left behind. Nevhithien's face had been like an open road: raised chin, flushed cheeks, bright eyes all for the journey ahead. Eleluleniel felt more like a departure point: like the fork in the road where loved ones say goodbye.
While she waved one subdued arm, Veisiliel waved both wildly: "One for Mama and one for Nevvy! I wish," she said with a heavy sigh, "that I had a third hand for Papa."
"Father is coming back," Eleluleniel pointed out.
Veisiliel gave her a look of childish horror. "So I should not wave to him? That is mean!"
"Are you saying I am mean?" Eleluleniel flung her head back and laughed the merry ringing laugh she knew her little sister liked. Smiling, she said, "It will be just the three of us these next few months. We shall be very cozy together."
"Shall we?" Veisiliel caught at her arm as they turned and began to walk back up the little path to their house.
"Yes, we shall. We shall be good and sweet and do all the things that Mother would usually do in her absence, and we shall be very kind to Father—for he will be missing her—and we shall be of great help to him."
"Shall we cook?" asked Veisiliel.
Eleluleniel nodded. "I am sure that he will let us do more in the kitchen. I will ask him when he comes home."
"Maybe he will let me use a knife. Mama never lets me use a knife. She says that I will cut myself."
"If Mother says you are not to use a knife I am sure Father will say the same. He has to obey her too, you know. And we cannot think that just because she is away we can do whatever we like."
"Oh pooh, you are no fun at all," Veisiliel pouted. "Leni," she continued in a serious tone as they entered their home, "I want to write a letter."
"Oh yes?" said Eleluleniel, turning to shut the door behind them.
"I want you to bring down the pretty box." This referred to the box in their father's study wherein were kept the stationary, the seals and sealing wax, good pens and inks and other materials for fine writing. "If you will bring down the pretty box, I will write a letter now for Mama and Nevvy."
Eleluleniel smiled at Veisiliel's earnestness—their mother and older sister had only just left, after all. Nonetheless she nodded. "But first you will write your letter out on practice paper," she advised, "so that when you put it on the good stationary it is perfect and you do not have to stop and start another sheet."
Veisiliel made a face but agreed and Eleluleniel walked with a light step to her father's study, her low spirits of earlier not forgotten but pushed aside for the time being. She was pleased by the way her little sister was responding to their mother and Nevhithien's departure: with industry and good cheer rather than tears or wailing. She remembered her own shameful performance at a comparable age when her father had left to fight in the conflict with Mordor. She had wept and asked repeatedly when he'd be coming back, and all the while her mother's sad eyes had become sadder and more distant, until finally Nevhithien and Alageth had pulled her into another room and told her she must not make such a scene!
"Can you not see that Mother is grieving?" Alageth had snapped at her, and those words had been like a slap to the face. Nevhithien had teased her gently later about the fuss she made. She had not sounded unkind, but Eleluleniel did not utter a word about her father again throughout the duration of his absence, though she missed him bitterly all the while. She did not want to make her mother sad and so had swallowed her heart until the War was over and he returned. Ilúvatar grant that I be good, she prayed when he came home, and that I never make my parents sad.
Smiling a little to remember this earnest prayer of childhood, she brought the writing materials to her sister. Veisiliel wanted to go outside but Eleluleniel shook her head. "After, when you are done with your letter-writing, or else the wind may blow it away."
"There is no wind today," said Veisiliel.
"You never know."
"Will you read my letter when I am ready with it?"
"Yes, and I will sit with you while you write it. I think that I will write a letter of my own," said Eleluleniel cheerfully. "Let us both read our letters to one another when we are ready with them, and that way we may think of anything that we might add. Or leave out," she added sternly. Veisiliel could become silly sometimes with everything that she tried to cram into her letters, and Mother did not like for them to be frivolous with the good stationary. There would be more letters, after all.
They were both quiet for a while. That is, Eleluleniel was quiet; Veisiliel hummed, and giggled from time to time. After a reasonable span had elapsed she said that she was ready. Eleluleniel had put down her own pen a short time before, and she sat and listened at first while Veisiliel read to her, then stood and moved around to look over Veisiliel's shoulder. Her sister's Cirth were formed with clean clear lines, but while the individual words were readily legible they jostled and crowded one another. Eleluleniel made a teacher's obligatory admonition to space the words more neatly, but knew that Veisiliel would forget. And, truth be told, her letter would none the worse for it. Her penmanship was like her personality: youthful, bubbling with an exuberance that threatened to spill from the printed page.
Eleluleniel knew that when their mother received their letters and read them in far-off Rivendell, Veisiliel's childish runes and her own delicate Tengwar, it would be Veisiliel's Cirth that made their mother smile.
There was soft scratching as they returned to their separate letters. Eleluleniel was like her older sister in her love of writing, but whereas Nevhithien's love was for setting down her thoughts, writing to the moment of her ideas and her plans, Eleluleniel enjoyed the simple act of putting words on paper, making the spoken visual and making it beautiful. She delighted in calligraphy, and one of her favorite pastimes was taking poetry she liked and rendering it in exquisite flowing script.
Eleluleniel should have become suspicious when her sister stopped humming, and when she no longer heard the scratch of Veisiliel's pen. She should have been alert for mischief but was not, all of her attention on the task at hand.
There was a sudden dark flash as the nub of Veisiliel's pen jabbed her hand. "Kiss!"
It was a light jab and not a painful one, but it startled Eleluleniel: she cried out and her pen gave a jump and scored a broad dash across her neat right-hand margin. "Ohhh…" she said in a voice of dismay. Annoyed, she looked up at Veisiliel. "Why did you do that? Look at what you made me do."
"It was a kiss!" said Veisiliel cheerfully.
"This. A kiss." Eleluleniel looked at the splash of ink across her knuckles. "This is no kiss, this is a mess!"
"Mama says that what is done in love should be received in kind," intoned Veisiliel.
"Mother did not say that meaning for you to poke me. And now I have ink on my hand." Eleluleniel was thoroughly pained. She looked at her hand with distaste and then shook it, which, of course, made no difference. Water and soap would have helped had it been any other kind of ink, but this was the good ink and would not be fading soon. "And my poor letter! Ruined!" She was glum for a moment before a thought came to her. Tongue in cheek, she began to adorn the stray line with flourishes until it was a rose, full and blooming, at the edge of her letter. There now. No one would ever know it for an accident but herself. Herself and Veisiliel.
"And now we can go outside!" her sister exclaimed happily.
"Oh can we? I am not sure we can. I love you but I am not at all certain that I like you at the moment."
"But Leni, you promised! You said after I was done with my letter-writing. Le-ni!"
Eleluleniel considered herself a reasonable person. She knew herself for what she was and what she was not, and she could list her own limitations with scrupulous honesty. She was an avid reader; she was not a sparkling scholar like Nevhithien. She had some loveliness of which she was not vain, for she could never aspire to the extraordinary beauty of their oldest sister Haenes, the sister she barely remembered, or of Alageth, own twin in likeness to Haenes. She had her mother's quiet demeanor without her mother's inner steel; she had her father's thorough mind without his cleverness. Perhaps when she was older she would have his talent in the kitchen, if she did not scorch the eyebrows off her face in the meantime.
There was one thing that she prided herself on, though, and that was her honesty, for she was ever scrupulous in matters of truth. Her honesty compelled her to admit that her little sister's claim had some basis in fact. "You are right, Veisiliel," she said grudgingly. "It was a promise of sorts, and I shall have to keep it." She felt a sudden unease as she spoke, though she attributed this to her displeasure with Veisiliel. "Yet I will keep it in a manner of my own choosing. We shall go out into the garden and we shall weed the roses."
"Elves," muttered Nazluk as he eyed the road sullenly. "Sodding stinking Elves." He, unlike Kurbag, had had some previous experience with Elves, none of it pleasant, and yet never had he found himself in a situation quite like this. Somehow in their flight of the previous night they had managed to evade Golug warriors while blundering deep into Golug territory: Elf-land, filled with the eldritch filth. Nazluk knew Elf when he smelled it. The road reeked of their accursed stink.
He glanced sidelong at Kurbag, who stood by looking uneasy. Faced with the unknown, the half-Uruk was out of his comfort zone and looking for Nazluk to take the lead, so Nazluk took it. "Well, let's not stick around here all day. We'll see where this road leads us, yes? See if we can't find some food." Earlier they had established just what provisions they carried between the two of them. The answer: not many. Replenishing their supplies was a sensible goal, and it would also lend them some sense of purpose while Nazluk figured out just how they were going to extricate themselves from this one.
They came on the house after some ten minutes walking. The two Orcs froze momentarily at the sight of it, and Nazluk actually hissed. Human dwellings were bad enough, but at least they weren't like this! The Elf home was a gray two-story building with high peaked eaves and tall windows. It was comprised mostly of stone, though there was elegant carved wooden molding and crenellation, particularly at the windows. A few useless little turrets stuck up at intervals. It should have looked ridiculous, solitary and situated in the woods as it was—an exercise in artifice—but the ivy that twined the balustrades and foliated archway and that looped and spurled over the edges of the roof made it seem of a piece with the surrounding forest. A fey dwelling it was, but also fair.
Nazluk thought it looked ridiculous. His hand closed on the hilt of the knife at his hip: it cleared its sheathe with a silken sound and he looked at Kurbag, narrowing his eyes and inclining his head toward the house. Kurbag nodded and the two split up.
The last that Kurbag saw of Nazluk, the other Orc was vaulting up over the sleek ornamental banister of the elegant front porch. Then Kurbag turned his gaze forward, wary of he knew not what. He moved cautiously, keeping his body low and close to the side of the house. An awkward moment when his foot caught in a thick vine spilling down the side of the wall to collect in a tangle at its base—he narrowly missed cursing aloud. As he pulled his foot free he entertained the ludicrous but unsettling notion that some strange intelligence animated the house against him: a malevolent presence that had deliberately put the ivy there to trip him, trying to thwart his passage. If so, it was doing a lousy job.
He came to a window and stooped low, hand brushing the sill as he steadied himself to pass under it. He was nearing the back of the house. At that moment he heard voices and paused, caught in a crouching position, ears flicking at the sound of a tongue he did not know and high, musical words he could not understand.
"It is no fun to weed the roses when there are no roses," said Veisiliel as she twisted up a snarl of sneak-greenery and threw it into the basket between them.
"We weed them so there will be roses later. It is important."
"But why roses? Why do we not pull up the roses and leave the weeds?"
Eleluleniel answered with a question. "Why do we have a garden at all? We have it so that we may grow roses and all of the pretty flowers that would not grow in this place otherwise."
"It is hard, though, for the little weeds."
"Ah, but they are weeds. They are hearty," said the older girl cheerfully. "We throw them out into the woods after and they take root as they like."
"Still, it must be hard." Veisiliel spoke with grave conviction.
"Hmm…." Eleluleniel looked at her sister thoughtfully. She had been very good about the weeding, following instructions with an easy obedience to which Eleluleniel was not always accustomed from her. Veisiliel was a lively pert child—it was not that she was naughty but she had a mischievous nature and was often quite careless about her older sister's authority. This current docility was most subdued. Eleluleniel smiled suddenly. "Veisiliel, I am hungry. We are almost done here. Would you like some of the little oaten cakes from yester-morning?"
Veisiliel gasped. "Honeyed oats?" she positively squealed.
Maybe this was a bad idea. Mother did not like for Veisiliel to eat too many sweet things as they made her excitable. But Mother wasn't there…And she has been so good since Mother and Nevhithien left this morning. She deserves a treat, thought Eleluleniel. "Yes, honeyed oats. They're in the high cupboard in the kitchen. If you will go and set them out I will join you shortly for a snack."
Veisiel leapt up with a sound of pure delight. Gracing her sister's forehead with a kiss, she darted off in search of sweets.
Eleluleniel went on with her weeding. She would finish this patch of earth, and then she would take up the basket and throw its burden of weeds into the wood, where they might take root and get by as best they could. The ghost of her sister's kiss lingered on her forehead. The "kiss" of earlier also caught her eye, a black stain on her right hand. Looking at it she was annoyed anew, but it also made her smile, however ruefully. Still smiling, she began to hum as she pulled up the weeds.
The voices had cut off and Kurbag was just beginning to straighten, thinking that the two Elves must gone inside, when he heard a low humming. He crouched again but then came out of it. Steeling himself, he continued forward and did not pause when the hum graduated to an unearthly chanting, and the strange words curled and twined in his ears like some queer enchantment worming into his brain.
"Navaer amar velui,
Navaer menel forodren.
Galu uireb alle, si
Mi aur a mi ithil faen
Thûl thuiant, aerlinn linnant."
He moved smoothly but stealthily, not knowing what it was he would see when he rounded the corner. His skin crawled at the strange voice—uttering what might have been some sort of spell for all he knew—but he was tired of skulking and ready for confrontation. A small partition of trellises overgrown with the barren vines of climbing roses continued some way past the side of the house. Pacing along it, he rounded the corner to find himself facing into a little cordoned area at the back.
The Elf was kneeling, digging beneath some bushes with a small trowel. He felt his apprehension dissolve in amazement at his own fears. He knew at once that this was neither warrior nor witch. The Elf looked small and fragile: her back was to him and as she pulled up weed-growth she was singing. Kurbag had always heard that Elven ears were keen, but she was clearly unaware of what stood behind her. She was too involved in what she was doing. Reaching over his shoulder Kurbag grasped the hilt of his sword, preparing to draw it from its scabbard. As his hand closed on the weapon he took a step toward her. The Elf continued singing to herself in a melodious voice:
"Ringyrn vain a dhelu
Di 'elaidh Lúthien carant
Io annan. Pân en ardhon
"Gwathel vain, mas bennich?
Thêl, man amarth thurin lín?
I elleth gwannant na morchant,
Mi dhúath, ah melethron dín…"
She was rising to her feet and must have heard or sensed something at that point, for when she turned it was sudden, and he stopped stock still at the sight of wide eyes in a slender, delicately featured face.
Eleluleniel turned and saw the tall Orc in dark armor. Gasped and took a step back, the trowel slipping from her fingers. His hand was on the hilt of his sword; he lowered it and stepped toward her. She whirled to catch the handle of the door and her skirts whipped against the edge of the doorframe as she darted across the lintel. She caught at the door to pull it after her but it stuck ajar two feet, immobile. He had reached the door and held it fast in his hand, looking down from a height head and shoulders above her.
She was small—small and slight—and his first thought, looking at her this close, was that he had never seen anything so clean. The traces of earth on her hands were negligible. She smelled of…he didn't know what it was she smelled of. Smelled of green life, of leaves in sunlight and the dark undersides of ferns. Kurbag's nostrils flared with the scent of her.
She also smelled of fear. She was backing away from him. There was a knife on the counter next to her. They were in a room with knives, with pots and pans and cooking things: a room filled with potential weapons. She had been holding a trowel when he saw her but had dropped it when she saw him. Of course it would have availed her nothing against him, but still. She did not touch the knife, and she had backed beyond reach of the counter now.
He stepped over the lintel.
He filled the doorway with his looming form. He is in our house. He is in our kitchen, thought Eleluleniel, her mind stupid with fear. Then—Veisiliel! Where are you? She had sent Veisiliel into the kitchen mere moments before. Eleluleniel looked around for her sister frantically, and in that second the monster closed the short distance between them.
She cried out as he caught her by the throat and her hands flew up to flutter ineffectually against his. He ignored this—having neatly immobilized her, he leaned in and studied her closely. She was gasping though he was not choking her, the breath coming fast between her lips, and he could feel the rapid pulse of her throat beneath his palm. It was like the throat of a bird. She was saying words, rushed and flowing and somehow musical even in her fear.
"Man anírach? Nin nidhich! Nin leithio!"
Some of her hair was caught in his fingers. It rippled over his dark hand like liquid moonlight: softer than hair had any business being, and infinitely fine. Her eyes were pale blue and terrified and she continued to babble in her mellifluous Elven tongue. "What are you saying, little Elf?" Kurbag murmured, cocking his head as he gazed at her.
He was not expecting an intelligible response and so was surprised to receive one. She had quieted instantly at the sound of his Common, which, though distorted by his growling guttural voice, she understood. "Please," she said faintly but very distinctly, "let me go. You are hurting me."
There was a loud crash and fierce cursing in the other room. The Elf cried out and Kurbag lifted his head, fingers flexing on her throat as he looked past her to the entryway that opened to the rest of the house. Nazluk appeared in it, breathing heavily.
"Oi," said Kurbag, "what's got you so cranky?" He released the Elf girl, who now had no means of escape. Both exits from the kitchen were barred for her.
Nazluk went into a towering rage. Kurbag was not able to understand his entire tirade but was able to extrapolate something about bloody Elves and their bloody Elf-carpets that existed for the sole purpose of tripping unsuspecting Orcs. It was catching his breath for the next round of expletives that Nazluk noticed the girl. His eyes narrowed and when he spoke his voice was cold. "Golug. Kill it."
The second Orc had been shouting and spitting in a tongue Eleluleniel had never heard before, but these last two words were in Common and were clear as crystal. She trembled but endeavored to speak clearly, her words halting and careful. "Please," she said, "please do not kill me. You have no need to kill me. What you want I will give to you." Even as she said it she wondered frantically what they might want, thinking of all that her family possessed. Love, light, life…these were wealth as her family held it, but Orcs would not desire such…
She had thought she was frightened but discovered new heights of terror when the bigger Orc picked up a stray knife lying on the counter. He did not move toward her, though, examining the ornate handle of the knife instead. "This is silver," he said.
Silver. Yes, silver! Silver she could give them. "I will find you silver," she said, and began immediately to open drawers and cupboards, scouring their contents for anything that would satisfy an Orc's appetite for the precious metal: fine cutlery, drinking vessels, anything she could think of. She flung a cabinet door open wide, realizing, too late, that her little sister might well have hidden herself away in such a place. But Veisiliel was not there. After that she was careful about the way she opened anything much bigger than a breadbox, thinking with fear that if she was not careful she would reveal her sister. Surely, surely Veisiliel was hiding somewhere—had become aware of the Orcs and had concealed herself immediately. Eleluleniel could not allow herself to entertain any other possibility.
Nazluk sneered and left the way he had come. The Elf continued to scour the kitchen. Kurbag watched as the radiant creature flitted about the room like a frantic bird, face pale, lips parted as she looked for anything that would please him. He leaned his powerful body against the doorframe and stroked the knife he was holding, his eyes hooded as he watched her.
I wrote "Navaer amar velui" for this story as a means of practicing my Sindarin and because it gave Leni something to be singing when first Kurbag sees her. The following is a line-by-line translation. Note that this song/poem kicks off with a quote from "The Song of Parting," which was Beren's song to Lúthien. This is a more Elven take on her fate.
Navaer amar velui,/ Farewell sweet earth,
Navaer menel forodren./ Farewell northern sky.
Galu uireb alle, si/ Eternal blessedness to ye, for here
Mi aur a mi ithil faen/ In sunlight and in white moon-sheen
Thûl thuiant, aerlinn linnant./ She drew breath, she sang her songs.
Ringyrn vain a dhelu/ Circles fair and fell
Di 'elaidh Lúthien carant/ Under trees made Lúthien
Io annan. Pân en ardhon/ Long ago. All the world
Dinúviel egleriant./ Praised Tinúviel.
Gwathel vain, mas bennich?/ Pretty sister, where have you gone?
Thêl, man amarth thurin lín?/ Sister, what secret fate was yours?
I elleth gwannant na morchant,/ She has departed into shadow,
Mi dhúath, ah melethron dín…/ In darkness, with her lover…
There is a point where foreshadowing stops being foreshadowing and becomes simply rude. This song crosses that line. Of course, Leni isn't singing it to be prescient and depressing. She is a young girl who is singing a pretty song.
Man anírach? Nin nidhich! Nin leithio! "What do you want? You are hurting me! Let me go!"
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.