18. Chapter 18
I did not have to wait long. Torches approached, their bright light making me squint.
"A wench!" one of the orcs exclaimed.
I levelled my arrow at them. "Halt! The first of you to come near me dies."
Caught off balance, the orcs hesitated. My only opportunity to act. "Let me go and you can have the treasure I've found," I called.
"Treasure?" They milled about uncertainly, forming a loose semi-circle around me. Fighting down my panic at the sight of their leering faces, their claws clenching and unclenching, I forced myself to stand straight and keep my voice level.
"Gold!" I told them. "And a king's ransom in precious stones. Rubies, diamonds, sapphires..."
Greed ignited in their eyes. "Gold!"
Then the leader shouldered his way through the crowd. "What's going on?" When he spotted me, his lips parted in a grin, revealing a pair of yellow fangs. "Well, well, well. What have we here!"
Large and heavily muscled, he looked as strong as a bull, a picture reinforced by the horned helmet he wore, and his eyes glittered with evil intelligence. Was it true that Saruman had mingled the blood of orcs and men to create this new breed of Uruks? This one certainly looked as if he combined the worst of both races, the cunning of men with the hatred of all living things that orcs displayed.
"Gubrak, the wench claims there is gold hidden here somewhere," one of the orcs said.
I trained my arrow on the leader's throat, willing my voice to remain steady and not quiver with fear. "Stay where you are if you value your life! You can have the treasure, but that is all." Would they take the bait?
"She's making it up," Gubrak snorted. "Who would hide their gold down here of all places?" He did not seem particularly impressed by the arrow pointed at him.
"Helm Hammerhand," I told them, "King of the Golden Hall." Remembering a tale from one of the books in Meduseld's library, I lowered my voice, the way the storytellers at home did.
"He hid his treasure in these caves during the Long Winter, and when he died, nobody knew where to find it. All the gold and gems that his forebears won from Scatha the Worm, a dragon's hoard of riches!"
That moment one of the orcs at the back stooped to snatch something up from the floor. He gave a shout in their vile language and at once an ugly scuffle erupted. They must have found my coins! I bit my lip to keep from crying out as they tore at each other's arms, yelling curses and snarling like a pack of wolves. Some of the orcs were bigger than the others, and they simply hurled the smaller ones aside, claiming the booty for themselves.
Then the orc captain snapped an order and slowly quiet ensued again. At another snarled command, one of the orcs reluctantly handed over his find. Gubrak turned the gold coin over in his claws, his nails clicking against the metal in the sudden quiet.
"This is all? A few paltry coins?"
"There is more where that came from. Mountains of gold," I answered. Where in the name of the Valar was Éomer? It seemed like I had spent an age in this cave already. My arm ached from holding the bow taut, but I did not dare show any sign of weakness. If only these animals could kill each other off! That gave me an idea.
"You will have to decide how to divide the treasure," I told them, "after all it wouldn't be fair if the weaker of you got the same share as the stronger ones."
As I had hoped, that set off another argument.
"We are Isengard's best, the fighting Uruk-hai," one shouted. "We deserve much more than these mountain maggots."
"Why should they get anything at all?" another growled.
The smaller orcs snarled curses and several of them drew their daggers, whereupon the Uruks responded by hefting their axes and yelling back.
"Quiet!" Gubrak commanded.
His hand went to the hilt of the broadsword hanging at his side, and at once the other orcs backed down and lowered their weapons. He waited until the last mutterings of protest had died away, before turning his attention on me. Predatory eyes fastened on my face and sweat broke out all over me. A cloud of malevolence seemed to surround him and I knew here stood a creature that revelled in causing pain and anguish.
Slowly the orc captain lifted the coin between his fingers. "Perhaps, my pretty," he said, "you will explain how a Gondorian coin bearing the mark of Steward Denethor the Second came to be in a treasure that you claim is two hundred years old?"
I stared at him stupidly and tried to think of a plausible explanation while an angry mutter went through the crowd as they began to comprehend my deception. Outwitted by an orc!
Suddenly I was grabbed from behind. Rough hands seized me. No! I tried to shoot my bow, but my assailant yanked on my arm. The arrow skittered harmlessly across the floor. I screamed. Coarse laughter in my ear. My arms were pulled back harshly and I cried out in pain. More laughter as somebody pinioned them in a grip like a vice and twisted them cruelly behind my back. Panicking, I struggled wildly.
"Woman is mine," said a gravelly voice. The Dunlending! Somehow he had managed to creep up behind my back while my attention was on Gubrak. Now he transferred his grip to one hand while with the other he seized my shoulder and forced me to look round at him.
"Mine," he repeated. His breath reeked of onions.
"I think not," said the orc captain.
The Dunlending stiffened. "I capture woman," he hissed.
"Are you defying me, Moragh?" the orc's voice went dangerously low. "I am the one who decides the distribution of loot."
Éomer, I thought. Where are you? Help me! What kept him so long? Surely he had to come soon. I clung to that thought as the Dunlending reluctantly released my shoulder, still pinioning my arms behind my back, but leaving me to face their leader. A clawed hand gripped my chin and tilted it upwards, the nails not quite breaking the skin, but exerting enough pressure to be painful.
"Let's have a proper look at what we have netted."
Black, leathery hide, a line of jagged teeth, red eyes glowing behind the slits of his helmet. Stinking of old blood. He raked his gaze up and down my body in pleasurable anticipation and I knew I should be quaking in terror, but instead I felt a sense of unreality - as if events had not quite caught up with me. If this was a nightmare, the thought flitted through my mind, now would be a good moment to wake up.
The orc captain bared his fangs. "You thought we were stupid, didn't you, to try and catch us with such a ruse? And maybe with these mountain maggots you might have succeeded, but I was chosen by Lord Saruman himself for this mission. We are the elite of Isengard!" He bent closer. "Your new masters."
As he leered at me I wondered just how man-like he was under that black armour. The thought sent a bolt of sheer panic through me. Éomer!
"Let us have a bit of play, Gubrak!" the other orcs clamoured, sounding nothing as much as children with a new toy.
Their leader shook his head. "Later. First I want to know what she is doing down here. It stinks of a trap."
He took hold of my braid and wrapped it round his hand, forcing me to tip back my head. A sharp nail stroked across my exposed throat. "You do not look like one of the Strawheads."
Time, I needed to buy time. "I hail from Gondor," I admitted.
"A Stonelander woman, as I thought. And what brings you here?"
"My father sent me to Rohan to find a husband."
That elicited a coarse suggestion from the Dunlending behind my back that made the orcs roar with laughter. Blood rushed to my cheeks and a tiny flare of anger sparked within me.
Gubrak tightened his hold on my hair until I was hard pressed to keep from crying out in pain. "That does not answer my question," he whispered. "You won't find a husband in these caves. So what are you doing down here?"
"I told you! I was looking for treasure."
"Woman, you are trying my patience." He bent over me until his face was only inches away. "Do not think you can play games with me."
I pressed my lips together in denial.
His fetid breath brushed across my cheeks. "We have ways of making captives talk. Especially females." With a sharp nail he traced a curling pattern across my temple and down towards the neckline of my blouse.
More laughter. Gubrak's mouth parted in a knowing smile, his eyes watching me closely, and I realized he was enjoying every moment. How many women had he terrorized in this manner? Relished their fright, delighted in their pain, had them pleading for mercy? Anger ignited inside me. He would not play such games with me. And I was getting tired of providing amusement to this filth.
"That's all you can do, isn't it," I told him, "threatening defenceless women. Why don't you find an opponent your own size!" Like a forest fire, rage spread through me. I welcomed it.
Gubrak looked taken aback. "We are the fighting Uruk-hai!" he roared.
"You are scum! You and your evil kin have no place on this earth," I threw in his face. "We will defeat your master and then we will hunt you down like the vermin you are. No matter in what stinking little hole you cower, we will find you and kill you!"
His face darkened and he yanked on my hair. "You will pay for that!"
But I no longer cared what consequences my words might provoke. "You were born as scum," I spat, "you will die as scum."
With a metallic ring he drew his sword. "Enough!"
Suddenly loud barking sounded, startling me. Wulf! In my fury I had forgotten about Aeffe and Wuffa.
Gubrak looked round. "What-"
An orc cried out in pain. "A wolf! It bit me!"
"It came from over there!" another shouted.
No! They mustn't find the others! I tried to pull my arms free, but the Dunlending still held them in an iron grip.
"Baruk Khazâd!" The call rang across the cave, echoing back from all sides. "Khazâd ai-mênu!"
Who was that? The orcs milled round in confusion while Gubrak shouted orders. All of a sudden out of the darkness a figure burst forth, white horsetail on his helmet, shining blade in his hands. The first orc fell with a slash across the throat before he could do as much as lift his axe. Éomer! Our eyes met for a single moment.
Then I cried out in alarm when another orc lashed out with his club at him. But Éomer sidestepped the onslaught neatly, cutting across the orc's exposed side and pivoting to meet the attack of an Uruk I had never even noticed behind him. Their swords clashed, before Éomer freed his blade with a violent twist and aimed a swipe at his opponent's head. The Uruk stumbled back, but Éomer could not follow up his advantage, for already more orcs assailed him from all sides. Where were his men? Surely he had not come completely alone?
"Baruk Khazâd!" the shout rang out again and one of the orcs attacking Éomer went down with a cry. The dwarf! And then at last his riders arrived, cutting into the black, heaving mass of orcs like a warship cleaving the waves. Gubrak swore as the balance of the fight shifted in favour of the Rohirrim.
"How did those cursed horse-lovers find us!" He lifted his sword. "Moragh, you take care of the woman. Make sure she does not escape."
With a blood-curdling yell he jumped to the attack. His helmet crowned by a pair of horns, he resembled a charging bull. Sweet Elbereth! I caught my breath as one of the riders went down under his furious assault. Warned by some warrior's instinct, Éomer spun towards this new threat and met the blade that would have ended his rider's life with his own. But the move unbalanced him, a fact Gubrak ruthlessly exploited by aiming a kick at his leg. Éomer had to scramble back hastily.
The two exchanged a measuring look and a strange kind of stillness seemed to spread out from them. Though the fight raged on around them, they faced each other as if nobody else existed, circling slowly, each step placed with utter concentration. I bit my lip to keep from crying out when Gubrak suddenly lashed out with his sword in a two-handed stroke that Éomer only managed to counter at the last moment. The Uruk was as fast as a striking snake! I had often watched my brothers' bouts in the practice ring and perforce picked up some knowledge of swordplay, so I could tell what a formidable foe Éomer faced here.
Many of the torches carried by the orcs had gone out and the cavern was filled with shadows. Would that favour Gubrak with his better night sight? That moment Éomer launched an attack, first feinting left, then cutting in low to the right. Steel rang against steel as the Uruk met his blade. Éomer gave him no chance to retake the initiative and spun round to aim a blow at his head. Gubrak managed to block that as well, but Éomer's sword scored a shallow cut along his forearm. The Uruk bellowed with anger and lashed out violently, forcing Éomer to give ground.
They exchanged a savage series of blows next, delivered with shattering force. Gubrak punctuated each slash with a furious grunt, but Éomer fought silently, radiating icy rage. My brother Amrothos was the best swordsman of Dol Amroth, certainly the most elegant one, yet I did not think he would have lasted five minutes against this tightly-leashed ferociousness. No, not elegant, but a consummate warrior. And he was getting the upper hand, I perceived, as the Uruk first had to take one step back and then another. The Dunlending holding me seemed to come to the same conclusion, for he swore loudly. I had forgotten all about him! Abruptly I realized another thing: the orcs were losing the fight and the Dunlending surely had to know that none of them would leave this place alive. Which meant that he might well decide to kill me...
That moment Gubrak missed his footing and slipped on the gore covering the cavern floor. A tiny misstep, but it was enough. Éomer showed no mercy. His sword fell in a silvery arch and bit deep into the unprotected spot on the neck above the mail shirt. With a horrible gurgling sound the Uruk pitched forward.
The hands holding my arms behind my back went slack as the Dunlending exclaimed in dismay and leant forward. I took my chance. Twisting away from him, I pulled out of his grip. Away! I had to get away somehow! He grabbed after me, but I kicked him in the shin, making him yowl with pain. I turned to flee.
Suddenly something yanked on my braid. Unbalanced, I stumbled and fell to the floor. Blackness edged my vision. Another pull on my hair. What? I rolled onto my stomach and tried to get up, but found myself trapped. Somebody held onto my braid! When I looked up I met the Dunlending's eyes, rimmed white in his face streaked with soot. He lay on the ground, an arm outstretched my way, the end of my braid wrapped round his wrist. An instant later he lunged at me with a dagger held in his other hand.
I cried out. Glittering steel. A sword passed so close to my face that I felt the wind of its passage. Blade met blade in a discordant clash. And all of a sudden I could move again.
"Get back!" somebody shouted.
Éomer! Throwing himself to his knees, he had blocked the Dunlending's dagger with his sword. I scrambled backwards, getting out of his way as he surged to his feet again. He spun round to meet his new opponent, but then checked himself. I followed his glance. The Dunlending lay on his back with an axe embedded in his chest. A short figure bent over him.
"Forty," the dwarf said as he reclaimed his axe.
I stared at him stupidly. Then I started to shake when it dawned on me how narrowly I had missed death. The damp floor under my hands, a stone digging into my knee, chill air flowing across my face. I was alive.
A hand gripped my shoulder. "Lothíriel! Are you hurt?" Éomer demanded to know.
"I don't think so," I stammered, looking up at him. My hair had come loose and fell into my face.
"Stay down," he commanded and let go of me.
But I could not have moved that moment anyway. I was alive! And the Dunlending was dead. Hastily I averted my eyes from the pool of blood spreading around his limp form. Only a few minutes ago I had wanted them all dead, but now that my wish had come true, I found the grim reality of it difficult to face. The smell of freshly spilt blood hung in the air, making my stomach cramp.
Around us, the sounds of fighting slowly died down. His sword drawn, Éomer stood balanced on the balls of his feet, surveying the carnage. Then he bent over the Dunlending's body and quite casually wiped his sword on the man's trousers before he sheathed it in his scabbard. The blade hissed with satisfaction. It had drunk deep of blood tonight.
"Check that they are all dead," he called. "We do not want any nasty surprises."
I struggled to my feet and leant against one of the limestone columns as he turned to me. His hauberk bore the marks of fighting and fresh gore was splattered across one side of his helmet. A wonderful sight: he was all right.
I took a step towards him. "Éomer..."
With a single movement he closed on me and gripped me by the shoulders. "Lothíriel, did those animals touch you?"
"No, you arrived just in time."
Éomer released his breath in a long sigh and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they were blazing with fury.
"Then perhaps you can explain to me what foolish, brainless and idiotic idea possessed you to come down here on your own?"
It dawned on me that he was still very angry. With me.