Splint

By Helena Markos

Adventure / Drama

Tunic

Splint

Chapter Three: Tunic

There was sound like a long, driving wind.

Somewhere below her, in the vast underground labyrinth of Orthanc, a female was shrieking. A swarm of other Uruk hai were pushing past; dozens of tall, dark bodies clamoring over each other in their haste. Rukhash felt as if her feet had been nailed down, her whole body frozen by fear, as a wall of water roared towards her. A soundless scream caught in her throat.

Strong arms caught her easily around the waist, slinging her over a broad shoulder. She twisted and turned to see those arms belonged to her older brother. His expression terrified her. Haughty Thraangzi, she had never seen him frightened before. They were running with a pack of Uruk, winding up, up the long stairs out of the bowels of Isengard; the river water quickly rising around them. Stragglers were being swept up in the strong current, caught in an onslaught of water that washed them away as if they had never been there. A wave burst forth from one of the adjacent tunnels, engulfing Rukhash and her brother. Thraangzi caught her thin arm in a crushing grip as they were tossed about. Rukhash felt as though her limb would be torn clean from its socket as it twisted unnaturally in the strong current.

Then, there was only blackness and cold.

Rukhash woke, for the first time in her young life, outside the tower. Coughing and gasping on the shore of the River Isen. She raised her head to see the spire of Isengard; a dark blot on the horizon. Thraangzi was thumping her between the shoulder blades, and she vomited a rush of slimy water. She had not been wearing much; a loincloth was enough in the labyrinth beneath the tower – cramped as it was with Uruk and goblins – but outside the air was frigid and she was soaked through. Rukhash could not stop shivering, her teeth chattered uncontrollably, but whether it was from cold or fear, she couldn't tell. Uruk hai and snaga Orcs were hurrying by them like a line of anxious, drowned rats. A general unease filled the air. An old orcish smith – a friend of her father that Rukhash often aided in the forges – stopped to help Thraangzi pull a still unsteady Rukhash to her feet.

"The trees!" she heard someone upriver yell. "The trees are coming for us!"

"The what?" Rukhash thought dazedly. How could trees be attacking them? She looked up to Thraangzi, hoping for some explanation, but he was staring past her, his amber eyes wide and filled with dread. Rukhash followed his line of sight just as a loud cracking sound echoed around them, and the thick brush at the riverbank parted to reveal a living nightmare. A tree, a moving, walking tree, was rushing towards them with long, loping strides. The world tunneled as the massive oak pulled back a thicket of arm-like branches, and swung at her. Rukhash closed her eyes...

A hard slap snapped her head to the side, and Rukhash opened her eyes to the craggy, scowling face of an old female orc.

"Pay attention, stupid girl," the old woman snarled. They were standing in the middle of a dark, musty room underneath Lugbúrz. The air was thick and humid, not so different from the tunnels of Orthanc, but she was alone here.

Her brother had been sent above ground to the barracks, and Rukhash was left to aid the women in the breeding pits. She was too young for whelping, so she had been placed in the service of old Grazad, the female in charge of caring for the newborn orclings until they were sturdy enough to train for battle. Any female at Lugbúrz too young or old to bear young and too weak to fight or operate the siege engines was set to this task.

"It ain't the best way to do such things," Grazad told her, "but it's how The Eye wants it. Just be happy you ain't hauling stone for the catapults."

Rukhash's orc grandmother once told her that, in the early years, Sharkey had demanded the manner of assembly-line breeding employed in Mordor. In Isengard, infants had been raised in family units, and orc tribes in other regions raised their young in the same way Rukhash was accustomed to, but beneath the gathering armies on the plains of Gorgoroth, The Eye was building a future army. He had no time for maternal nurturing or familial bonds, and all able females of larger orcish breeds were required to help build that army. Infants were taken from their mothers at birth so the females would be ready to conceive immediately afterward. Young males were sent to train the moment they could stand without assistance, while females were sorted out by size and strength. Some were sent to work in the mines and quarries or given a sword and thrown into battle with their brothers.

Females that were best suited for bearing young were employed with same task Rukhash now held, serving as midwives and nannies in the pits until they were able to share their mother's place. Rukhash watched many females die in the darkness, too exhausted from previous pregnancies to bear another child, and she helped old Grazad split more than one she orc open to save a whelp before its mother died. Rukhash knew one day that would be her place in the order of things: bearing young for her Master, producing the future generations of soldiers and slaves that kept Mordor running.

She maneuvered through the winding tunnels with familiar ease. There were little ones to care for, and Grazad was a hard taskmaster. The old bint was always on her for one thing or another. Rukhash bristled, because she knew she was snaga now. She would have no status until she was old enough to bear young. Then, an Uruk Captain would be chosen for her to couple with, and at least she could call herself a Breeder, if nothing else. It certainly wasn't the worst title in the world. That's what her mother had been. Even though the Uruk hai females of Isengard enjoyed slightly more freedom than their Mordor counterparts – they considered themselves a tribe, after all – it did not make them any less bound to their task of supplying warriors for their Master's army.

Rukhash had not seen her brother in weeks, and she wondered how he fared above ground. Thraangzi was older than her by a decade, and more than capable of handling himself, but Rukhash missed him. She missed her father. She missed her mother and sisters and even those of her kin that she had never really liked. A small part of her hoped they also survived the flooding, but she knew that was nearly impossible. If they had lived, they would have been drawn to Mordor, just as she and Thraangzi were.

Her charges were arranged in rows of tiny pallets. Orc and Uruk infants did not squall loudly. Instinct and generations of constant threat had taught them to mewl quietly when annoyed or uncomfortable. An orc child only cried out under pain, so despite the large number of tiny orclings in the room, it was relatively quiet. At least here she was useful. She had young that depended on her, and for a few brief moments, it was as if The Eye's constant malice was quiet in her mind. A sort of peace settled over Rukhash and she let out a long breath in a great whoosh of air. She bent over the first little bundle as she soaked the milking cloth, but when she pulled back the blanket, she recoiled in horror.

The little orc she was ready to feed had large grey eyes and a straight nose, its chin covered in hair. It was a tiny Cadoc face, staring up at her. The ground suddenly rumbled beneath her, and she turned to find dozens of wailing Cadocs screaming at the top of their lungs as debris peppered down from the shaking cavern ceiling.

Rukhash startled awake. The fire had burned itself out, and across from her Cadoc was sleeping peacefully. Resting a steadying hand on her pounding heart, Rukhash took a deep, calming breath. She was in her cave on the side of the mountain, not beneath Lugbúrz as it crumbled, or standing before a wall of pitiless water underneath Isengard. The cave had gone cold in the crisp evening, so Rukhash threw some wood on the nearly dead fire, and eased the flames back to life with a gentle breath. Her tark charge seemed unchanged from the night before. She noted his unhindered breathing, and his scent had lost the fevered taint that lingered in the first few weeks of his unconscious stay with her.

I been too concerned with him, she realized. I need to get out and hunt today. He should be fine on his own for a few hours. Her half memories had been unsettling. While it was good to finally have a conversation with someone after her long stretch of loneliness, Rukhash was feeling restless. She was accustomed to coming and going as she pleased, but had barely left the cave while she cared for Cadoc. Now that this man was healing, she would be able to get back on a normal schedule. There would be an extra mouth to feed this winter, and Rukhash was not at all pleased with her current cache of food.

By the time Cadoc woke, Rukhash was enveloped in layers of fur and leather, her bow and arrows slung over her shoulder. She unceremoniously shoved a bowl of broth and bread in his lap and headed out into the crisp morning air before he could say, "Good morning." Cadoc found himself at a loss. The splint limited his mobility, and he was still sore in the torso. He imagined Rukhash would be displeased if he managed to exacerbate his injuries in her absence.

She had been thoughtful enough to leave his knife near his bed. "Just in case," she'd said. The cave was quiet; the fire had been fed earlier and danced merry and warm. Feeling comfortable and relatively safe, Cadoc allowed himself to doze.

It was an odd situation he found himself in. His experience with Orcs had, until very recently, been limited to battle, and he realized how little he actually knew about them as a people. If he were completely honest, it hadn't even occurred to him that they were people until now. Not that they had given him much cause to do otherwise.

His eyes drooped and he recalled troubling memories.

The stench of burning flesh was sharp and strong. Cadoc pulled his cloak up to cover his nose, stepping across the threshold of a ruined cottage. This was one of the few homes not reduced to rubble in the wake of the marauding Orcs that passed through these lands. The War had ended, but Cadoc found a ranger's work was hardly done. There were still fierce mobs of wayward Mordor soldiers stalking the lands of South Ithilien, and many of the brave men that had started settlements here had fallen in the Orcs' destructive path.

Inside, the contents of the home were strewn about as though struck by a merciless storm. The heavy oak table in the kitchen was overturned and pots and pans littered the tiny room. The door had been shattered by an unyielding force and was scattered about in splintered pieces. Then, of course, there was the blood. Here, it was just a light splattering against the far wall, but Cadoc followed the trail with his eyes into the main room, where a body lay crumpled in an unnatural position. Taking a rallying breath to steady himself – for as often as he had come across such a scene, it still affected him – Cadoc maneuvered through the ruined kitchen and into the sitting room, where the hearth fire had long ago burned out.

"Valar be damned," Cadoc swore bitterly, as the gruesome scene unfolded before him.

In the center of the room was a woman. She may have been fair before this horrible end, but now her face was gored so heavily with claw marks that Cadoc could scarcely distinguish any features. She had been cleaved through the middle, and the dark trail of her insides had obviously been gnawed at as they spilled across the wooden floor. There was a child, a young boy of perhaps ten or eleven winters, with his limbs nearly torn off. His stab wounds were numerous and he, too, had been partially eaten. Cadoc felt a little bile rise in his throat. The air was thick with the corpses' rotting, and large black flies danced upon them.

A tiny sound, a pained coo, caught the Ranger's attention. It was barely audible above the buzzing insects, but Cadoc managed to follow it to a large wardrobe in the corner. He cleared away some debris blocking the front, and opened the door to reveal another, smaller child. It was a young girl, so covered in soot and ash and muck that she was black as any orc. Cadoc knelt before the girl, who stared at him with large, hazel eyes, her breath coming in quick, terrified gasps.

"It's all right," Cadoc said soothingly, reaching out to gently touch her shoulder. "I'm not going to do you any harm." The child trembled beneath his hand, but otherwise remained silent. Cadoc pulled her from the wardrobe. She shivered against him as he carried her from the wreckage.

He and several others of his order finally rode down the group of beasts a day later, and they slew each orc to the last. There had been an overwhelming feeling of justice done as he pitched those bodies into the fire. That girl's haunted eyes echoed in his mind.

Rukhash didn't seem like the wild creatures he'd slain in the past, even if she was a bit crass. Most Orcs Cadoc encountered were more eager to cleave your head from your shoulders than talk to you, and the few orcish settlements he'd ridden into were hastily thrown together shanty towns; places where raiders, cutthroats and thieves – both orcish and mannish – could gather. An uneasy feeling settled in him. Some of those settlements most likely contained females and young, but one could never tell the difference until the battle was done and the corpses were gathered for burning. Orc women and young fought alongside the males with an equal viciousness and penchant for malice. They had always seemed like a strangely homogenous race, a sea of snarling, sharp toothed faces to be felled before they felled you. Cadoc had rarely examined the bodies of Orcs before he pitched them into the fire.

Though he did not seek out Orcs to hunt them in earnest, Cadoc also did not think very highly of them as a whole. He had seen enough of their ugliness to decide that he wanted nothing to do with them. Only wicked men trekked with Orcs, and Cadoc, admittedly, was more likely to slay an orc in passing than to greet it. If their positions were reversed, he wouldn't have saved Rukhash from a messy death at the jaws of a wolf. The fact that an orc had shown him more mercy than he would have offered in return was troubling on a fundamental level.

Until now, he had never given the hunting of Orcs a second thought. Most villages welcomed rangers and orc hunters as heroes, and Cadoc had, on more than one occasion, benefitted from that adoration, but the need for such forward, unrelenting measures had lessened considerably over the years. Over a decade after the War, it was rare for Orcs to venture near civilization, and the orc hunters had to range further and further into the wilderness to find their bounty. It was practically impossible to find them now, unless one was exclusively looking for them. Lately, there were even talks of invading southern Nûrn in force now that the armies of Gondor had amassed anew and northern Ithilien, Emyn Arnen and Southern Gondor had been cleared of The Shadow's minions. That area was said to be rife with orcs, even after they had been driven out of Gorgoroth and Lithlad, the area north of the Sea of Nûrnen.

Cadoc was not an orc hunter by trade, so his interests did not lie with searching out Orcs now that they were in hiding. As a Ranger of the South, his duty was securing Gondor's borders and, barring that being done already, protecting the population; not riding into foreign countries to seek out monsters hiding in the dark corners of the world. Cadoc could not remember the last time he fought an uruk or greater orc. It had to have been years. In fact, most of his time was spent tracking down mannish outlaws – many his own countrymen – or escorting peasant folk through the dwindling wilderness east of the Anduin.

Because of the relative peace in his homeland, something Cadoc could honestly say was novel for the sheer fact that he had never seen it before, he rode north this past season into the Southern Downs; accepting the invitation from Northern Rangers of The Angle – distant relations on his grandfather's side. They had not once come across a single orc or the remnants of an orcish party, even when they skirted the Misty Mountains, and that land was known to be accosted by them. The whole season had been mostly quiet, aside from a stray bandit apprehended in Bree. He would have considered it a waste of time, save the fact that he was able to speak Sindarin among the few, remaining elves of Imladris. Rivendell was known far and wide as a place of great beauty, and Cadoc found, during his brief stay, that it did not disappoint.

When he'd parted ways with his comrades to winter at his home village in Lebennin, he remembered thinking that the Shadow's threat was finally gone, and his continued service may no longer be necessary. In many ways, Cadoc was a relic of a more bloody time, when darkness threatened the borders and the forests of Ithilien echoed with orcish war cries and the distant rumble of iron clad feet. That time was long gone, and many of the rangers he once rode with were now part of Lord Faramir's honor guard or the White Company. It made Cadoc sad that, at forty-two, he may need to invest in a different profession. He was even beginning to begrudgingly consider finding another wife to ease his sister's urgings. Then, his horse had lost its footing, the wolves found him and he woke up in an orc's cave halfway up the mountain.

Cadoc knew Rukhash would not be so kindly disposed towards him if she knew his occupation. She was lonely here, but he doubted her desire for company would trump her desire to slay someone who had killed so many of her kind.

The sky had dimmed to a vibrant blue by the time Rukhash returned. Forcing his mind to settle after an afternoon of restless thought, Cadoc had started to drift off just as she crossed the threshold, bowed under a large pack. With growling, cursing struggle beneath the weight on her shoulders, she descended from the mouth of the cave, and threw down her burden with a grunt.

"Do you need any help?" Cadoc offered, feeling useless as the orc woman began liberating her bundle.

"None you could give right now," Rukhash replied cheerfully.

Cadoc smiled hesitantly at that. At least she was in a good mood.

"Ah!" she purred as she undid the last tie, "We eat like kings tonight." Cadoc blinked as the bloodied, old leather fell away. Wrapped in the sack was a large, wild pig. A few broken arrows poked out of its neck and its eyes rolled back to the whites. The Orcess had already gutted it, probably to decrease its weight. She began to pile more wood on the fire to cook it.

He was a little startled she had managed to fell such a large animal on her lonesome. Cadoc almost questioned her methods, but quickly decided against it. Now that she had returned, he experienced the familiar unease of the previous night. Beneath the blanket he was still naked, and he felt troublingly vulnerable; even with his hunting knife at hand.

Still, it was a welcomed meal after the thin broth she had given him; though he did have to request she cook his portion a little more thoroughly. Rukhash ate her meat nearly raw and with a the wild ravenousness Cadoc would expect from a beast. Tentatively chewing his own supper, he decided that, as long as she did not turn those teeth on him, he shouldn't complain about her table manners.

After they had eaten their fill, there was still a fair amount of swine left. Rukhash went about cutting the pig down into thin strips for drying, ignoring him and singing to herself in her horrible language as she separated the fat, meat and bone, creating neat piles according to length and thickness and tossing the fat into a wide bowl.

Cadoc watched her meticulous, cheerful cataloging and wondered why she hadn't sought out others of her kind. She seemed fairly skilled in several areas. She may not be the hateful monster he expected Orcs to be, but she didn't seem crippled by gentleness. Cadoc tongued at the tooth she had knocked loose the night before. Considering the callousness with which her kind had been routed out in the past, he wasn't sure he wanted to ask outright. He imagined whatever answer she gave him would not be pleasant.

Soon, the meat was skewered, placed near the fire to dry, and the fat was rendering in a small, iron pot near the coals. Rukhash settled near Cadoc with a pile of buckskin in her lap and a long, thick needle.

"I'm making you a tunic," she told him without prompting.

Cadoc gave her a puzzled look. "Why?" he asked. He felt she had already done enough for him.

"Them old rags you were wearing were mostly ruined," she explained. "I used yer shirt for bindings, and there weren't much of your trousers after I cut them off."

"You cut them off?"

The Orcess gave him a clever smile. "Bone was poking through," she explained, wiggling her finger in a stitched hole. "Think a tunic'll do just fine for now. You won't be walking around any time soon."

That didn't bring Cadoc any great comfort, still... "Thank you," he said.

Rukhash looked up from her work with a lopsided grin. "Eh," she shrugged, "gives me somethin' ta do. 'Sides, you're better fer company than a pile of stones." Rukhash seemed pleased with herself, or perhaps the situation in general, as she continued sewing. A strangely companionable silence stretched between them in which Cadoc thought of a million questions that he wanted to ask, but most seemed like a gateway to more disagreeable topics.

Still, as he watched her sew a seam with even, tight stitches, his curiosity was getting the better of him. Considering the frequency with which they robbed, Cadoc expected Orcs stole most of what they possessed. Glancing askew at the pot of water she was using to render the fat, Cadoc frowned thoughtfully. "Where did you learn to do all this?"

"Do all what?" she chirped, focused on her work.

"All this," Cadoc emphasized, gesturing outwards. "Where did you learn to set broken legs and make oils and cure hides and fletch arrows?"

Suddenly offended, Rukhash narrowed her eyes. "You mean living?" she said darkly. "Who taught you how ta fall off horses?"

"I didn't mean to insult you. I just...didn't know Orcs knew how..."

"Thûlk!," she barked, glaring at him indignantly, and Cadoc snapped his mouth shut. Angry, Rukhash continued sewing, but the silence that stretched between them became significantly less companionable.

"My mum taught me, since you're asking," Rukhash stated suddenly. There was a prideful tone to her voice. "And her mum taught her and on and the like. Who do you think built Orthanc? Or forged the arms for the war? Or made everyone's clothes? That sort a thing don't magic into bein', even if there're wizards about to do the magicking."

"I assumed Saruman and Sauron had slaves to do that sort of thing," Cadoc said.

Rukhash stilled and regarded him with a grim frown. "They did," she said quietly, "and we were, all of us, happy to do it, even with whips on our back." She turned away from him and stared off into nothing, her brow knitting.

"Masters're troublesome things," she said finally. "Especially when they're always urging you on, always pressin' on you, 'til you're not sure if the hateful thoughts you're thinking are yers or theirs. You don't even care to know, until they've popped off, and all that rage they put in you has drained out, and you feel sort of...empty. Like, you're not sure what should be put there instead."

"What did you put there?" the ranger asked quietly.

Rukhash's face scrunched up into an indescribable expression. Cadoc was sure she was going to cry, but she blinked it away so quickly, he thought he imagined it. Then, she let out a long breath through her nose, and fixed him with a sad smile. "Ain't nothin' for it," Rukhash started, her tone lighter. "Makes me think troublin' thoughts. Why don't you tell me how you ended up on the pointy side of a wolf?"

"Ah..." Cadoc stammered. "There's not much to tell. I was returning home. My horse slipped and threw me. When I woke, the wolves were upon us."

"Why were you all the way out here?" Rukhash asked, "There's not a village of men for miles."

Cadoc swallowed, "I...recently decided...to...leave my former profession." This was not completely true. While the life of a ranger might be greatly changed from what it was, he would most likely continue to protect and serve the people of Gondor in some capacity. However, Cadoc could see no benefit in elaborating further. The more he explained the closer Rukhash might be to guessing his true profession.

"Oh? Why's that?" Rukhash asked.

Though her tone was not accusatory, only curious, Cadoc found himself grasping for an answer. "I've begun to find the work...tiresome."

"Suppose that's as best a reason there is," Rukhash nodded sagely. "So what's home for you? Have a girl waiting on you?" She finished with a rakish smirk. Cadoc gaped stupidly, a little taken aback by the mundane nature of this conversation. Orcish small talk was eerily similar to ordinary small talk. And, honestly, did all women harp on the same tune?

"No," he said at last.

"Hn," she grunted, "not the settling down type?"

Cadoc was glad that her attention was set on the tunic she was sewing, and not his rapidly blushing face. "I have tried it before," he answered, a little surprised by his own honesty. "It didn't work out."

"Yea?" Rukhash raised her brow in interest. "What happened there?"

Cadoc was not in the habit of spreading gossip, and in truth his former marriage was many years behind him. Much of the hurt he felt afterwards had dissipated into a grudging understanding and personal guilt. "I didn't spend enough time at home, I suppose." There was more to it than that, but Cadoc did not feel comfortable discussing the particulars with an orc, even one as friendly as Rukhash.

"That's it?" Rukhash said with a disappointed frown, as though she was hoping for something a little more juicy. "Didn't you look after her?"

"I suppose I did," Cadoc replied. "I provided for her, but women demand a little more than monetary compensation from their husbands."

"My mum's mate spent most of his time away," Rukhash snorted. "Most males did. If orc girls were that particular they wouldn't have a mate at all."

Cadoc did not consider Ingrid's demands of him as a husband to be all that particular. If anything, Cadoc had, if not readily, at least begrudgingly, agreed to her terms of their separation. Her grievances were well founded. She had been patient with him for many years, both during the War and after, but Cadoc's wanderlust ran deep, and Ingrid's patience had run out.

Though, he was suddenly struck with the way Rukhash spoke of her sire. "Your father, you mean." Cadoc stated, hoping the she orc would clarify her detached reference.

"Kragolnauk weren't my dad," she replied as she continued her sewing. "He were my mum's shaûk."

"Her what?"

"'At's like a partner, I'd guess," the Orc answered with a thoughtful tap to her chin. "He made sure she were looked after while she were knocked up and he spent most of his time with her when he were home, but he weren't responsible for making all of her kids, especially me."

Orcish marriages sounded remarkably open ended to Cadoc. "What do you mean," he asked at length, "especially you?"

Rukhash glanced up at him from the bundle in her lap, the corner of her mouth curled up in a humorless smirk. "Can't tell the difference in orcish breeds, can you?" she said, but cut him off before he could answer. "That's fine. Can't say I can tell the difference between you whiteskin folk."

Cadoc felt that was an unfair accusation. He had a fairly good grasp of the differences between goblins and Uruks and Uruk hai. He had spent enough time fighting them to tell them apart. "I don't see how that answers my question."

"If you could tell," Rukhash started, finally abandoning the tunic in her lap to face him directly, "then you'd know I'm a mongrel." The ranger's mouth hung open for a moment, as if he meant to say something, but Rukhash pressed on with her explanation. "My dad were a smith from Nûrn come north to serve in the forges. Uruk hai girls," Rukhash continued, "ain't nearly short as I am. My mum and sisters would've stood tall as you and almost as broad in the shoulders. My nan were big enough to catch your skull in her jaws and crush it in one go."

"That old goat of a wizard bred my mum's folk from orc tribes in the far north. Dragged 'em down all the way from Angmar, that's where my nan were from, and mixed 'em with Dunlander blood so's they could bear the sun better." Rukhash snorted peevishly, and Cadoc imagined she had strong opinions pertaining to the schemes of Saruman.

"Nûrn folk," Rukhash went on, "are a spindlier sort. All long limbs, and not much height for it. Dad wouldn't 'ave come much taller than yer chest. I favor my mum in looks, but I've got my old dad's shortness."

The Ranger found himself a little speechless. He had assumed her shorter stature and slighter build were due to her gender, and not a mixed heritage. Cadoc tried to imagine the massive female Rukhash's mother must have been, and shuddered at the thought of her monstrous grandmother.

"I didn't realize," Cadoc admitted at length. "Were you treated poorly for it?"

"Sha," Rukhash spat, "I caught a little flack fer bein' such a runt, but if anythin' Kragolnauk were a little better towards me than my sisters. He ignored them entirely most of the time. He was too busy training his boys or bonkin' around with my mum."

"What do you mean," Cadoc said suspiciously, "by better towards you?"

"He were a little nicer," she answered with a raised brow, "a bit more patient. Made sure I stayed out of trouble, and my dad saw that he and his lads had finer blades for it. Dad spent all 'is time in the forges. Didn't get ta see 'im much, but 'e made sure I were looked after."

"A bribe?" Despite himself, Cadoc felt a small, grudging respect for Rukhash's faceless father. If anything, her sire had good intentions towards his daughter.

"I guess," Rukhash said with a shrug. "By rights, I shouldn't 'ave been allowed to live. Old Sharkey didn't want his fine breed of uruks tainted with snaga blood, but since I was female, mum didn't think he would pay any mind. That dodgy old sod only cared about his army, he never bothered with the females in the dens, so mum didn't see any harm in keeping me."

"Your mother told you this?" Cadoc was incredulous. How could a woman, even an orcish one, tell her daughter such a thing?

The Ranger's accusatory tone made Rukhash's hackles rise. "Course she did," Rukhash retorted. "Told me to stay away from the fucking wizard so he wouldn't guess at it, and I stayed away from the fucking wizard! He scared the shit outta me."

Indeed, Cadoc could believe that Saruman would terrify a child of any race. Reigning in his quick judgement of her mother, he frowned thoughtfully at the mental image of a tiny Rukhash cowering in the shadows as the imposing White Wizard stalked the halls of Isengard. What would have Saruman done to her, he wondered, if she had been found out? Cadoc didn't have the nerve to ask.

"Here, try this on," Rukhash ordered as she tossed the tunic at him. "You see if that fits before I finish it off, and I'll have a look at this leg of yours."

Cadoc pulled the half-finished tunic over his head. It was a little baggy, but he had lost some weight over the past few weeks. Rukhash loosed the splint and cut the bandages at his leg. There was some sickly bruising around the stitching, and his calf was growing thin. Other than that, it seemed clear of infection and the bone was set straight. His leg was sore, but not unbearably so. Cadoc was not versed in the finer aspects of healing, but he imagined it must be healing well.

"This is coming along nicely," Rukhash confirmed. "You won't be hopping about tomorrow, but it's mending." She spread a dark salve over the wound and rewrapped his leg with a clean binding before she reattached the splint.

"This fits well," Cadoc told her, referring to the tunic.

She nodded and he placed it in her waiting hand. "I'll see to it tonight, then," she told him.

They did not exchange words as she sat down and retrieved her needle. Cadoc watched her with renewed interest. The ranger felt as though he had learned more about her race in the span of the last few minutes than he had in his entire life. She had a curious heritage.

"So, you are also part Dunlending?" he queried, interested in her mannish ancestry. Perhaps that was where her agreeable nature stemmed from.

Rukhash smiled to herself. "Yea, my granddad were from Dunland stock," she confirmed, her bright eyes shining for a moment. "Don't remember him much, 'cept that he were a hairy bastard. Died when I was still just a little blighter." She fixed him with a genuine smile, her crooked fang peeking from her bottom lip. "It's why I saved you, you know," she said.

Cadoc looked suddenly startled. "Really?"

"I might not remember him well," Rukhash explained, "but from what I do remember, he were a nice old git. Always used to bring me and my sisters presents from the raids."

Cadoc's brow drew into a tight knot above his nose, and he felt much of his benevolent feelings towards this creature evaporate with the memories of the many Rohirrim refugees that poured into Western Gondor during the War. "The raids," he parroted tonelessly. "And how many Rohirrim children died for your presents?"

Rukhash favored him with a bored expression, as if he had just recited the dullest story ever told, but Cadoc caught a slight lifting of her lip, the flash of dangerous, sharp teeth. "Ain't sure," was her cool reply, and there was malice in her even, rumbling tone. "Probably just about as many as there are orc whelps at the bottom of the River Isen."

"You really want to sit here," she continued slowly in the wake of his raw silence, "and go eye fer eye with the wrongs our folk have done to each other? Because whatever you'd like to slag at me, I'm sure I can reverse the charge. Don't see what that'll do, though, 'cept piss us both off. You want to sit there and wind yourself up, that's yer own damn business, but if I decided to dwell on all my kin dead at the hands of your lot, I'm liable to slit your fucking throat."

Rukhash's attention went back to her work. She stabbed at the tunic with an unnecessary ferocity. The air between them was filled with heavy silence as the fire spat and crackled. Her not-so-subtle threat did not go unnoticed. Cadoc watched her furious stitching with a sick feeling in his gut. He hated to admit it, but the Orc had a point. The flooding of Isengard, the slaughter of her people after the War; those events most likely looked very different from her perspective.

Not that they didn't earn it, Cadoc reminded himself, but he was also forced to acknowledge that he was a guest in this orc woman's home, and alive because of her intervention. It seemed oddly unfair to blame her for the actions of others; not when she was overlooking the slights his people had done upon her.

Her cheerful attitude and attempt at small talk made much more sense all of a sudden. She was most likely trying to avoid discussions pertaining to the animosity between their folk. Cadoc decided it was probably in his best interest to follow her lead.

"It's a very nice cave you have here," Cadoc said at last, deciding a change of subject was in order.

"Is it?" Rukhash snorted, looking around at the dark, stone walls with a thoughtful expression. "I guess it is...Took forever to clean the troll stink out, though."

The ranger blinked owlishly at that. "A troll lived here?" He hadn't seen a troll since the War. Cadoc honestly thought they had vanished altogether.

"Big as life and twice as nasty, he was," she nodded, her tone suddenly bright. "Nearly killed me. Fortunately trolls is about the stupidest damn things alive, and I had him chasing me 'round the forest when the sun came up, crazy bastard. And I hadn't done nothin' for the trouble he wanted to put on me, mind you."

He realized, as the Orcess prattled on about her narrow escape at the jaws of a troll, that she was excited to tell this story. Rukhash seemed more than content to drop the darker, more argumentative parts of their conversation. Her voice became more animated as she regaled him with a less offensive tale of her past, and Cadoc smiled at her antics as she gestured wildly in the course of her recounting; imitating the growls of the troll as he attacked her and huffing as if she were actually running away from it. She was quite a storyteller.

"He's still there," she said pointing due south, bringing her story to an obvious close, "stony cunt that he is. Serves 'im right."

There was a rehearsed way to how she recited the tale, her reenactment well practiced, as if she had been telling it to herself for a long while now. He wondered how true it was. A horrible thought worried at the edge of his mind. What did one do after years of solitude; without a friendly face in the world? Perhaps she had told herself this story before, if only to hear the sound of a voice.

Burying that sad thought, Cadoc fixed her with a quiet smile. "You'll have to show me when this leg is mended. I've never seen a troll gone to stone before."

"No, eh? Then I will," Rukhash said with a cheerful grin.

That night Cadoc slept with a new tunic on.

Translations

Thûlk!: Enough!

Skai/Sha: Gah,Arg; an exclamation

Last Edited: June 2014

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