When Cadoc awoke, he was immediately alerted to the fact that he was naked. This was distressing, even though his private areas were covered by a tattered blanket. The stiff fur scraped against his bare skin in numerous areas, but at least it seemed clean. He was grateful for that small relief.
The excruciating pain he experienced earlier had dulled to a mild throbbing in his leg, and the ranger found that he could manage turning his head from side to side without trouble. There was no sign of the Orc, though he imagined it was somewhere nearby. Out of habit, Cadoc made a mental check of his surroundings with the limited mobility his body afforded him.
He had been moved into a cave with a high ceiling. A fire crackled nearby, surrounded by round hearthstones. Beyond that, his ragged clothes were folded in a bloody pile and placed over his weapons. Near his head was a bowl of filthy water and a rag, most likely used to wipe the blood and sweat from his body. Cadoc felt a twinge of unease at this. The thought of an Orc stripping him, even for a task as amiable as bathing, was disturbing to say the least.
His left arm was sore. Lifting the limb gingerly, he realized it had been bandaged from the elbow down, the dressing strips of his cotton undershirt rinsed and cut into even lengths. Whoever had bandaged him – and Cadoc could only assume at this point that the Orc had done it – did so with care. He turned his neck to scrutinize the damage done to his leg, and wondered anew at the well-made splint steadying his limb. This Orc seemed to have some knowledge of healing.
This was a riddle worth solving. Why would an Orc go through the trouble to save him at all?
'Unless it wants me healed for some other, unwholesome purpose,' he thought with a shudder.
Cadoc had fought in the War of the Ring, and for many years before and after protected Gondor's borders from the armies of Mordor. He knew the damage a band of Orcs could do on an unsuspecting village, had seen the gruesome aftermath of too many Orcish raids and invasions. In the years following the War, he had devoted himself to ridding even the wildest places of their foul presence, and had fought alongside fellow rangers, Gondor soldiers and Orc hunters to that end. There was a cruel irony that he was now at the mercy of such a beast. Cadoc knew his right leg was thoroughly broken. He heard the bone snap when he was thrown from his horse. There was no way he would escape without recapture.
Frustrated, but determined, Cadoc scrutinized his surroundings, hoping for any advantage in this desperate situation. There were signs that the creature had been here for some time. Along the far wall there was a small stack of baskets, whose contents Cadoc did not hazard to guess; a animal skin sleeping mat and rolled blanket were located near his weapons; tidy stacks of cookware, a pile of arrows, and skins stretching were laid out not far from the slope leading from the mouth of the cave down to the floor two meters below; a woven mat with tools and little pots arranged on it lay near his feet, though he could not determine what exactly those tools were. He had to crane his neck uncomfortably to see them in the first place.
His weapons were too far from him. This was obviously done on purpose. It would be nearly impossible to drag his battered body across the cave, especially since he had no idea when the Orc would return, or if it had partners. There was a slim hope that the creature may have been careless. He did not get a good look at the tools left by his feet, but there had to be a knife or blade of some kind that it used to cut the material for his bindings. If not a blade, there still might be something he could break to make a sharp edge. He may be in the den of an Orc, but Cadoc would not be helpless.
Grunting in agony, the ranger managed to push himself up into a sitting position. Already, his breathing was labored, and he winced as new pain blossomed in his torso. Examining the area, he found a broad bruise spread over his belly onto his side. Cadoc scowled at the revelation of this additional injury. Undaunted, he leaned forward to survey the possible weaponry afforded to him.
There was a small part of Cadoc that wanted to weep. Laying near a few strips of binding, a tiny pen knife glinted feebly in the firelight. Gathering his resolve, Cadoc reached for the knife anyway. It would be a paltry weapon against a foe as ferocious as an Orc, but it would have to do. At least now he would be armed while he dragged himself across the cave to reach his sword.
A quiet snort from behind broke his train of thought, and Cadoc felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise. He turned slowly, hesitantly towards the mouth of the cave. Standing at the entrance was the creature that saved him from the wolves, and there was no mistaking it for anything but an Orc. Though a hood hid the better portion of its features in shadow, its bright yellow eyes glinted unnaturally in the firelight. It was dressed in several layers of fur and leather. The pair of thin, dark legs visible beneath the hem of its cloak were swallowed by thick, leather boots. It was holding a pair of hares, a longbow and quiver slung across its shoulders. It was not very broad, which gave him some slim hope that he might overpower it in a fight. Injured as he was, Cadoc was still prepared to defend himself.
Awkward silence stretched between them. The beast stared at him far longer than Cadoc felt comfortable with. How long had it been there watching? He imagined that it must find his incapacitation amusing in some way; why else watch him struggle just to sit up? It stared at him and the ranger stared back defiantly.
'Let it come at me,' he thought fiercely, 'and it will find that I am more than it bargained for in a victim!'
The Orc did not attack, as he suspected it would, but began a slow descent down the slope and into the cave, its movements calm and almost graceful. Cadoc was briefly reminded of a barn cat as it stalked a mouse. The creature's eyes never left his, holding his steady gaze with its own stoic expression. In the short time it took for the Orc to descend from the threshold and cross the distance to the fire pit, Cadoc envisioned every hideous aftermath he had ever seen dealt by creatures such as this. In the immediate years after the war, Orcs had done as much damage to the weakened Gondor as they did during the war. Their fierce reprisal in the face of defeat was terrifying, for they no longer challenged the armies of men, but stalked the shadows for more helpless victims. He remembered children half eaten and burned in the flames of their own homes, women obviously ravaged before they were sliced in two, and tales of those unfortunate survivors who no longer had limbs or recognizable faces.
And here he was, in the lair of such a monster, with a blade no longer than his pinky between them.
The creature stopped in front of the fire, close enough for him to see it more clearly, but too far for him to hazard an attack. Lifting its hood, the Orc turned its attention to the pair of hares it had strung on a short thread of leather; as if making the decision that he was not a threat, and therefore, unworthy of its continued interest.
Cadoc stared into the glassy black eyes of the hares as their slit throats dripped thick sanguine onto the uneven stone.
Pulling a long, curved blade from its boot, the Orc began skinning its kill with a sure hand borne of familiarity. Realizing the struggle he anticipated was not forthcoming, Cadoc took this reprieve to study his captor more closely. It had a high hairline and a heavy brow that shadowed its large, slanted eyes. Its lips were thin, but protruded to cover the fangs he knew hid underneath. The fire gave its black skin a reddish tint, and Cadoc could see a crisscross of numerous tiny, raised scars across its brow and neck that he might not have noticed without the harsh light. There were a few traits that Cadoc found slightly out of stride with what he would consider usual. The Orc's straight legged gait would mark it as an Uruk hai, the fierce northern Orcs of Isengard, but it was far smaller than any Uruk hai he had ever come across. Its arms were long and thin, very much like a goblin's, but its brow was not as heavy or knotted as many of the goblins he had encountered. It bore features that were not what he would consider delicate, but its blunt nose was not quite as broad, its neck more slender, and its face had a youthful, rounded shape.
Anxiously biting the inside of his cheek, Cadoc fingered the pen knife. This creature looked young. Perhaps its ungainly proportions were the mark of an adolescent. Hopefully, it was less skilled at fighting than it was at skinning. Minutes passed in silence while the Orc worked and the ranger watched; anxiously holding the knife between them. As the beast handily slid the first hare from its skin, it turned its gaze on him for a dozen long seconds before its slitted pupils flicked to the tiny weapon he held. The corners of the Orc's mouth turned up, revealing a particularly disconcerting, crooked fang. An amused glint caught its eyes.
"This a Man's gratitude?" the Orc asked in a flat, growling accent. Its voice had all the comely tones of gravel scraping against stone.
Cadoc said nothing, but his grip tightened and his mouth firmed. In all his life, he never thought he would stoop so low as to converse with the likes of an Orc.
The Orc shot him an irritated expression, obviously annoyed by his silence, but said nothing as it laid the second skinned carcass next to the first. The beast rose to retrieve a large pot from the far corner.
Finally, unable to bear the tension, the ranger asked, "Why are you keeping me here?"
The Orc cocked its head to one side as it returned to the fireside. "Who's keepin' you anywhere?" it said with a wide-eyed, pouting expression that Cadoc assumed was meant to look innocent. Dropping the rabbits in, the Orc rested the pot over the coals. There was a flourish to the way it did this, as if being overly dramatic.
The Orc gestured to the cave entrance grandly, raising its nose in the air with a haughty sniff, "Go," it said, "if you want ta go, but don't come cryin' ta me when the wolves have had you! Here, I thought ya might be decent company."
Scowling to cover his discomfort, Cadoc struggled to kneel up while holding the blanket to shield his modesty. If this creature was letting him go free, he wasn't going to turn the offer down. The Orc gave him a baffled look, obviously surprised by his determination.
"Stubborn fool," it admonished with an animal growl, "yer goin' ta kill yerself."
As if on cue, the cave suddenly spun around him, and the ranger fell back onto the pallet. His vision darkened, and Cadoc realized that unconsciousness would yet again claim him.
The Orc's face hovered above, shadowed except for its grotesque eyes that glowered down at him. "You must've given yer poor mum no end'a trouble," it said, voice laced with exasperation.
The ranger's grey eyes rolled up before closing and he was suddenly still as death. Rukhash was not worried. The rise and fall of his ribcage was easy to spot. She glared irritably at him. A bright, bloody gash bloomed across his head from his collision with the cave floor and she bristled with irritation. And here, she had gone through a lot of trouble to dress his wounds properly. The least he could have done was see that he didn't incur any new ones!
"Ungrateful," she muttered.
There was a warm rag on his brow, and a light scent of pine filled his nostrils. Somewhere to the right, he could hear someone humming low in their throat as a fire spat and crackled. For a disoriented moment Cadoc forgot where he was, until he caught sight of a stony cave ceiling. A mild throbbing blossomed behind his eyes. The ranger grunted and blinked to clear his vision.
The tuneless humming stopped.
"Awake now, are we?" the gravelly voice of the Orc said. Cadoc heard a rustling as it moved to his side. Disembodied yellow eyes hovered above him – they were all he could see in the gloom of the cave – and the rag on his head lifted. Its other hand was at his brow, applying a sticky, pungent substance.
"Idiot tark," the Orc clucked with an annoyed frown. "Nearly cracked yer skull open." The tone of its voice held no conviction. If anything, the Orc seemed exasperated; as though he were a particularly unruly child.
Cadoc tried to form a response, but his throat had gone dry. Swallowing hard, all he could manage was another, feeble grunt.
"Here then," his captor said with more gentleness than Cadoc would give an Orc credit for. Lifting his head the creature set a cup at his lips. "Don't gulp it down."
The water offered was relief and Cadoc swallowed it too quickly, despite the warning. He managed to breathe a little in and launched into a fit of choked coughing. The Orc growled and pushed him into a sitting position, striking him roughly between the shoulder blades a few times as he gasped and sputtered.
The fit racked his ribcage painfully, making his eyes water. The Orc rubbed his back in small circles as he caught his breath in heaping gulps of air. The gesture was somewhat motherly, and Cadoc found it utterly troubling to be touched by an Orc in such a way. He was suddenly reminded of his lack of clothing. Intending to say something to give the Orc cause to retreat from him, he turned towards it, but found his words completely lost.
Though the light was dim, it was enough for Cadoc to realize that the Orc was almost as naked as he was, covered in nothing but a loose loincloth at its hips. It was crouched so close, he could smell the light musk from its skin. Its dark face was mere inches from his own, but more disconcerting than that was the startling obviousness of its gender.
Without thinking, Cadoc struck the Orc in the throat with his palm, and the creature fell backward with a startled yelp. For a few, terse seconds his captor stared at him incredulously, and Cadoc stared back, unable to look away from the Orc's startled expression; its dark skin glistening in the low firelight; its surprisingly well-formed breasts rising and falling with each breath...
The she Orc leapt forward with a vicious snarl that would terrify even the most stalwart ranger and slapped him across the face with enough force to snap his head to the side and loosen several of his molars with a loud crack. For a dazed, blinking moment Cadoc feared she may have broken his jaw.
"What the fuck is the matter with you?" she bellowed and bared her jagged teeth to growl at him.
The ranger ducked as, in one smooth motion, she threw the water cup at his head, rose to her feet and turned on her heel, returning to her seat by the fire. Cadoc refused to look at her. He could feel a hot blush at his face, and his cheek throbbed painfully where she struck him. Already he felt a welt forming. He heard her sloshing water, ringing out something, but he could not overcome his overwhelming embarrassment enough to see what she was doing
"Whiteskin bastard," she growled, furious. "I could've left you to them wolves, or let the fever have you. Here, I show you mercy, and yer nothin' but ungrateful."
Cadoc did not know what to say to that, so he said nothing and pulled the blanket up to cover himself more modestly. The Orc grumbled a little longer in her hateful speech and then fell silent. The only sound was a constant splashing of water.
"What are you doing?" Cadoc asked finally, unable to bear the awkward silence that stretched on. He had no intention of staring at a half naked female Orc – there were not even words for the disturbing nature of that image – but he was also concerned about what she might be up to without him watching her.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" the Orc huffed, annoyed.
Cadoc made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. "I don't know, I'm not looking."
"Well, if you looked then you wouldn't need me to tell you, idiot zanbaur," she growled at him.
Cadoc wasn't sure what a zanbaur was, but it didn't sound like a compliment. "You aren't clothed," the ranger stated.
There was a lengthy pause. "What does that have to do with anythin'?" All the anger had drained from her voice, replaced with inquirey. Again the awkward silence stretched, only now, he could feel her eyes focused on him. Cadoc felt his face going hotter by the second.
"It isn't decent!" Cadoc shouted to the wall, annoyed that she would drag out his discomfort.
Staring at his red face, Rukhash realized that the Man sharing her cave looked more than uncomfortable to be around an Orc. He looked downright embarrassed. She didn't see why something as trivial as nudity would make anyone act so strangely. Uruk hai, and Orcs in general, lived in such close quarters and with so little to go around that the concept of modesty was completely alien to her. This fluster was because he caught a peek of her breasts? That had to be the silliest thing she had ever heard. Rukhash couldn't help the giggles that escaped her, and when the Man's expression grew grave, his whole face and neck darkening until it was redder than a sunset, she broke down completely into uncontrolled laughter.
"I don't see what's so funny..."
"That's what you have your hackles up over?" she said between snorts as she tried to catch her breath. "Afraid of a pair of tits are we?" She jiggled her breasts as she said this, despite the fact that he he wasn't looking. She found that even more amusing and descended into loud guffaws, her eyes bright with tears. Dragging him back to her cave was the best idea she'd had in a long time. Finally, something to do besides stare at stones all day.
Cadoc scowled at the pitted wall in front of him, annoyed with this she Orc's mocking laughter and her obvious lack of decency. "Do you have to do that right here?"
The Orc managed to reign in her outburst to quiet snorts. "We'll hope our ladyship will forgive us," she mocked, wiping her eyes, "but I ain't washin' outside to preserve an uppity whiteskin's delicate sensibilities." Cadoc released a long, angry breath from his nose. He heard her shifting, moving the basin of water, and he hoped she wasn't approaching him again.
"Here now, I've turned 'round," she said, sounding no less amused with the situation. "Nothing to fear any more."
Chancing a glance, he found that she had, indeed, turned to face away from him. She continued washing with a methodical fastidiousness, and, despite himself, Cadoc was mesmerized with the way her muscles bunched and moved beneath her dark skin. Her figure was remarkably, disturbingly, like that of a Woman. If it were not for the numerous, silver scars across the landscape of her back, and the occasional sight of her wicked, sharp claws, from behind – and in gold firelight – he might easily confuse her for a Woman of Harad.
"You could use a wash yerself, you know," she said, breaking him from his troubling meditation on her ample hips and tiny waist. "Been 'bout ten days since I cleaned you up after that nasty business you had with those wolves."
"Ten days?" Cadoc asked, startled. Had he been here so long?
"Yea," the Orc replied, "you slept a good while. Had a nasty fever. Thought you'd be dead for sure by now, but here I suppose you're made of tougher stuff then you look. Still," she continued with a sniff, "you are starting to stink. I can smell you from 'ere." She dropped her rag in the basin and looked over her shoulder at him. "Water's still warm, if you'd like it. And don't make that face at me! You've nothing I ain't seen before."
"If it makes her ladyship feel any better, I'll promise not to peek." The Orc covered her eyes to emphasize her point, parting her fingers a little so a glimpse of her bright eyes peeked at him. "Not much, anyways," she added with a rakish smirk that revealed the crooked fang beneath her lower lip.
Cadoc growled a little in the back of his throat. "No, thank you," he replied tersely. The she Orc rolled her eyes dramatically and turned away from him again.
She reached to her right to grab a little earthenware pot, dipped her hand in, and began threading the oily contents into her thick, dark hair. "Don't know what you're being so cranky about," she said as she rubbed the oil into palms and began applying it to the rest of her body. "You don't believe you didn't shit the whole time you've been 'ere? Who do you think's been keeping you from layin' in yer own filth?" Cadoc felt a fresh wave of embarrassment flush his face. He assumed he should be thankful, but to be caught in such a debasing situation, and with an Orc no less, plucked at his pride.
"Don't suppose our ladyship has a name," the Orc said, changing the subject. When Cadoc didn't answer, she peeked over her shoulder.
"I could make one up for you, if you don't feel like telling," she offered, smirking at him mischievously, as though she rather liked the idea of naming him herself, "but you'd probably not like what I come up with."
"Cadoc," he answered, fairly sure he definitely would not like any name an Orc would give him.
"Cadoc," the Orc echoed. Reaching over to a tidy pile of clothes, she plucked a wolf skin tunic from the top. Pulling it over her head, she turned on her tailbone to face the Man again. With her fingers laced, she arched her back and stretched, popping her spine into alignment with a content little grunt.
"Well, Lady Cadoc," she started with a smirk, "I'm Rukhash."
The ranger scowled at her. "Cadoc will do just fine," he replied.
The Orc's chuckling hissed over his ears. She placed the pot of oil within his reach. "You should use some of that, at least," she stated matter-of-factly, "it'll keep the bugs off of you." Cadoc eyed the dark oil suspiciously.
"Skai!" she exclaimed, and Cadoc flinched at her outburst. "It's not made from the bones of tark children!" She laughed, obviously amused with how he'd startled. "It's mostly tree oil, nothin' nasty."
The ranger dared a whiff of the liquid, and he found that it was not particularly foul-smelling. It had the heady scent of pine and moss, but it was an earthy, clean sort of smell, and Cadoc found it quite bearable. Mimicking her earlier application, he rubbed some into his hair and on his upper body. The Orc had turned her back to him, ladling broth from the large pot he had seen her cook the hares in, and Cadoc took advantage of her inattention to rub a little of the oil on his more private areas.
When the Orc turned to him again she let out a giggling snort. "You didn't need to wash in it," she laughed. Grabbing a rag, she tossed it at his head. Snatching it off of his face, Cadoc obediently dried the excess from his hair and rubbed the oil into his skin more thoroughly, adding in a little dirty look for measure. When he had finished, he realized the Orc was regarding him with, a small, please smile plastered on her face; her yellow eyes dancing. Cadoc had the overwhelming desire to strike her again. As if he was here solely to amuse her!
"Eat something," she ordered, shoving the bowl in his lap. It was half filled with a thin broth, and a thick, white bread-stuff was floating in the middle. Cadoc frowned at it.
"You'll want the biscuit to soak a bit," she explained, "or you won't be able to chew it." He took a tentative bite. True to her word, the bread she offered was a rock, worse than traveling tack, and the broth was bland and tasteless. Cadoc was hungry, but he found Orc-food hard to swallow.
"I'll admit it's not much," she said, noting his difficulty as she chewed her own biscuit thoughtfully. "Didn't have much luck in hunting today, and no sense breaking into our stores too early." The Orc looked worriedly at the small pile of baskets she had piled in the far corner. "I'll have to range a little further tomorrow," she added, talking to herself more than him. "Now that you've got yer wits about, ain't got to worry about leaving you all day."
Cadoc's brow knitted at that, but he was still trying to chew the hard tack into a form he could swallow. His sore jaw wasn't helping matters. Finally, he managed to force the dense ball of dough down his throat. "Our stores?" Cadoc asked.
"For the winter," the Orc explained.
"The winter!" Cadoc exclaimed, alarmed. "What makes you think I'm staying here through the winter?"
"You plannin' on hobbling down the mountain on yer own, then?" she growled at him, her expression suddenly stony. "You can barely sit up as it is."
He hadn't thought of that. Though unsure of the exact extent of his injuries, simply sitting for this short period of time was beginning to exhaust him. He doubted he would be able to manage a hike down a mountain.
"I thought," he said casually, "since you were being so altruistic, you would help me down yourself. I certainly would not want to put you through any more trouble than I already have."
Though not versed in Orcish expressions, Cadoc was fairly sure a brief, hurt look passed across the she Orc's features before she dropped her gaze to the bowl in her lap. "Ain't no trouble," she mumbled, deflated.
For some reason he couldn't place, Cadoc felt like a heel. It was a strange feeling, considering he felt it over the demeanor of an Orc, but he could not deny that this creature had saved his life from certain peril, and he was curious as to why she had done it. As Rukhash continued her meal in sullen silence, avoiding eye contact with him, Cadoc glanced around the well-stocked cave. This was not the home of an Orc that settled in recently. Though organized far more neatly than he would have expected, it looked as though she had been hoarding possessions for years. She poked at her supper, and Cadoc hazarded a guess to her motives. "How long have you been alone here?" he asked her quietly.
With a startled blink, Rukhash swallowed thickly. "This'll be my fourth winter," she admitted without meeting his eyes.
Frowning quietly, Cadoc said nothing to that. On one hand, she could be lying to him in an attempt to gain his sympathy, but Cadoc could not come up with any plausible reason why she would do so. Besides, he doubted Orcs were such accomplished actors. The Orc glanced at him briefly before dropping her gaze again, and Cadoc found that he pitied her, as wild a notion as it was. As a ranger, he was used to long stretches of solitude, but always there were comrades or his family waiting for him when he returned. Cadoc could not imagine returning to nothing. Ultimately, as dangerous as they were, he knew Orcs to be social animals. It was entirely possible that this she Orc was lonely enough to rescue a former, bitter enemy for the virtue of something as benign as companionship.
"So you meant what you said," he pressed, "about thinking that I would be good company?"
Rukhash's mouth twitched into a half smile as she stared into the fire. "And here I thought you weren't listening," she said.
"I apologize," the ranger said. She stared at him with a baffled expression. "...For striking you," he explained.
"Gar," she dismissed his apology with a wave of her clawed hand, "I gave you a fair cuff for it. We'll call it even."
Cadoc nodded and slurped some of the broth from his bowl.
Later, after their meal was done and the fire had burned down, Cadoc found himself regarding Rukhash as she slept. She kept her back to the wall and faced the cave entrance –and him– her curved knife clutched to her chest. Occasionally she would grunt or growl in her sleep, quiet sounds that were punctuated by a scrunched nose or the swivel of her pointed ears.
He was not sure how long he would stay here to keep her company. At the very least, he needed his leg healed, and Cadoc was not sure how long that would take. Probably the whole of winter. The Orc showed no inclination to help him reach civilization, so it would seem as though he was stuck with her for the foreseeable future. Cadoc decided he would make the best of it. Though predictably coarse, Rukhash seemed fairly amiable in personality. He supposed it would not cause him too much trouble to offer her a little company in recompense for saving his life.
Cadoc sighed. His sister Edda was going to kill him when she discovered he had been alive all this time.