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By Helena Markos

Drama / Adventure


"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater."

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

It was getting dark.

That was the first thought that crept into his mind as Cadoc opened his eyes, staring, listless, at the reddening sky. His breath curled in a lazy, white mist above him.

Agony rippled across his body. Vaguely, through the din his pulse made in his ears, he could hear the frantic whinnying of his horse a few meters away. The beast labored – in vain, from the sound of its struggle – to right itself after their precarious tumble down the sloping landscape. He blinked slowly, as though caught in a viscous fluid, and tried moving his legs. They refused to listen. A frantic moment passed over him and he fought against his injuries, but only managed to rock a little on his back, like an overturned turtle. Exhausted, he ceased struggling. The wind's hollow whistle through the desolate, rocky peaks was almost deafening.

A wolf bayed somewhere to his right, though Cadoc could not discern its distance. Its call was soon echoed by a fellow, and Cadoc sensed enthusiasm in the second wolf's return. For a moment, his vision swam, fuzzy and dark, but Cadoc willed himself to stay conscious, though he realized his ill found fate would be less agonizing if he allowed himself to fall into oblivion.

Cadoc had roamed the wilderness as a ranger for all of his adult life. He had survived Orc attacks and battles with the warriors of Harad and Rhûn along the Gondor border, and even the Great War had not felled him, despite the fact that it finished many men far greater than he. In all his long years, Cadoc could not imagine that his death would come on the side of the mountains – just three days from his home village. Once these wolves had at him, there would be nothing left to mark his passage from the world. His dear younger sister, perhaps even now anticipating his return, would never know what fate was met by her brother. Cadoc chuckled – a wet, rasping sound in his chest – that this would be his end; a bloody, broken pile in the middle of nowhere.

The growling was close now. Where was his sword? Moving his arm to his hip was a monumental effort. Cadoc found his weapon sheathed at his side, but lacked the strength to unbuckle it, never mind pull the blade free. His knife was tucked away in his right boot, but considering his current condition Cadoc felt it may as well have been stuck in a stone on the other side of the world. His horse made a terrible noise, like a woman's high pitched, agonized screaming, and the ranger knew his old stallion was dead. His world became a cacophony of snarling and snapping teeth and the messy, wet noise of the wolves' feasting. Bile rose in his throat as he listened to the gory ruin of his proud steed, and for the first time since he regained consciousness, Cadoc was relieved he could not turn his head. The ranger wondered how long the wolves would take to end him as well.

Not long, it seemed. One was at his side now. He could see its hulking form from the corner of his eye, all black fur and yellow eyes and teeth, teeth, teeth gleaming with blood. The beast was so close he could smell the sharp, metallic stench of its breath.

"Let's have it then," Cadoc growled, defiant. The wolf leapt, and despite himself, Cadoc closed his eyes against the approach of its red fangs, but there was no landfall, no rending of throat and limbs and flesh. Instead, Cadoc heard the wolf yelp in startled surprise, and a flurry of fire waved over him. A dark, cloaked figure positioned itself between Cadoc and his aggressors, swinging a torch and cursing — at least, it sounded like cursing — in a guttural tongue that he could not recognize. Cadoc's head swam for a second time and he felt his hard won wakefulness slipping.

Blinking against the spots that swarmed his vision, the ranger tried to make sense of the figure silhouetted against the torchlight. It lifted the nearest wolf up with a free hand, and issued a snarl that put the beast it held to shame. Cadoc's defender tossed the wolf effortlessly at its two pack mates, toppling the three of them in a pile of matted fur and limbs and yelping surprise. A Warg pack might have rallied against their foe, but these were common animals. The wolves clamored to their feet, and Cadoc could hear their frightened whining fading into the distance.

Cadoc's vision was fading as his champion turned to face him, and before he fell into the dark arms of unconsciousness, he discovered what it was that saved him; black skin, the flash of fangs and yellow eyes that glowed unnaturally in the dim light. It was a face he knew well, the face of an Orc.

As the creature approached him, his world went black, but even in his dreams, he could see those eyes, bright and alien in his mind. Cadoc slept, and dreamed of yellow eyes.

Rukhash stared down at the prone Man, unsure of what to do. She had no idea what prompted her to scare off the wolves in the first place. In the heat of the moment, it seemed like a logical course. Though now, surveying this Man's injuries, she knew that leaving him here would be an even less merciful death than if the beasts had devoured him alive. A small part of her felt she should be satisfied with that. She bared her fangs at his slack face.

'I should devour him,' she thought fiercely. After all, how many of her kind had perished during the war and after because of his murderous race?

Despite her vicious thoughts, Rukhash found herself bending over the Man. Her hand moved to the pulse at his neck, where she could feel the weak flutter of his heartbeat against her fingertips. The hard claw of her thumb rested dangerously against the hollow of his throat, and she pressed it gingerly to the pale skin there. A dark drop of blood welled up, but the wound was too shallow to cause any real damage. Rukhash scowled.

'His skin is like paper,' she mused. 'I would just need a little more pressure to end his worthless life.' Her claw did not dip any further, though. She searched for the old malice that sustained her in youth, but that had perished with her Master. Not even the rage of grief remained, only the aching emptiness of her loss, and Rukhash found herself thinking thoughts that she once would have considered traitorous.

How long had it been since she spoke to another soul? Three years, maybe four? Even then, it was to be rejected by a small tribe of goblins. They had sent her back out into the wilds alone, despite her lengthy search for other Orcs, and her pitiful pleading at their doorstep. Though she felt murderous at the time, Rukhash supposed she couldn't blame them entirely. The Uruk-hai had never bothered to curry any favor with the other Orcish breeds, especially the smaller snaga of Isengard that so often bore the brunt of their haughty disdain. It was a fine revenge they'd had on her.

Rukhash found herself examining the Man's bloodied features. Skai, but he was ugly! Even with the scrapes and dark bruises, she could make out his hideously pale complexion, his long, straight nose, and his whole face was covered in dark, greying fur. Rukhash scowled to herself. He was so alien looking, and for a moment her repulsion almost made her mind up for her.

Thinking of her lonely cave further up the mountain and the fast approaching winter with its long nights of cold darkness, she reconsidered. After all, she could not blame one Man for all the slights against her or her people; even if he was ugly. More than that, she herself was of Mannish heritage. Rukhash could not remember her Dunlending granddad well, but she could recall his gentle, singsong voice and sharp blue eyes; so different from her gruff, red-eyed Orcish nan. If her memory was right, he was even furrier than the injured Man in front of her.

What could happen, then, if she helped this Man? There were no other Orcs to rail against her, no master to drive her to murder, and the old, insatiable hunger she knew in Isengard and Mordor had evaporated with the Dark Lord's spirit. If anything, she might be doing her own lot a great service. If she could befriend this Man, perhaps he would not be as eager to draw a blade against her people. Rukhash eyed his ranger's cloak dubiously. She would have to be cautious, though. He could just as easily slit her throat while she slept.

But to have a little company! Even under duress, it would be a preferable situation to her loneliness.

Besides, she thought, smiling to herself, if he becomes a bother, I could always eat him.

Feeling more cheerful than she had in months, Rukhash trussed up the Man's wounds as best she could with her limited supplies and hefted him onto her back. Shuffling to his dead horse, she managed to pull the saddlebags free of the gore left by the wolves, determined to take any extra supplies this Man may have carried with her as well. It would be a slow climb up to her cave, but she would best be able to care for his injuries there.

With a light heart and a heavy burden, Rukhash began her long ascent up the mountain.

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