Splint

By Helena Markos

Adventure / Drama

Promises

SplintChapter Four: Promises

They fell into an easy rhythm as the days turned into weeks. Much to Cadoc's surprise, cohabiting with Rukhash was troublingly effortless. She spent the greater portion of her day hunting in preparation for the heavy snows of the coming winter, and most of her nights involved drying meat or scraping skins or making various balms and strange smelling brews. Though he was not sure what most of her concoctions were for, he supposed he should be grateful that she had so many remedies on hand. Hhe owed his life to her preparedness.

The ranger supposed he could find himself in worse situations. As hostesses went, Rukhash had gone out of her way to make him comfortable. Their conversation had remained limited to innocuous topics like the weather or the patterns of game in the surrounding area. Cadoc was amazed by Rukhash's extensive knowledge of Orcish metallurgy, which he discovered she learned by assisting her father in the forges of Isengard. Smithing blades was an occupation that Cadoc had, as an accomplished swordsman, always been interested in, though he lacked the talent and patience required in metal working. Still, he was content to discuss the pros and cons of various ores and alloys and casting techniques, and she seemed just as content to impart the information. Though, Rukhash had not touched a smithing hammer since she was a girl, she still carried a real fondness for the craft.

Both of them were very careful to omit more provocative topics, or to steer a conversations away from a subject that either would find disagreeable. Though, if he were honest with himself, Cadoc had to admit that there were some questions he burned to ask, even if the answers disturbed him. Her daily routine seemed so normal. Cadoc wasn't sure what he expected Orcs to do all day when they weren't sowing mayhem, but it certainly wasn't drying meat and mending clothing. But he was concerned that he would offend her after their terse exchange a few weeks before. After all, he was dependent on her good graces. If her benevolent opinion of him somehow changed while he was still injured, he knew that he could not fight her off. She may not have shared the gargantuan size of a full blooded Uruk hai, but she was deceptively strong.

Even now she exercised that strength by dismantling a deer carcass with far less effort than a man twice her size. Stripped down to her thin under tunic, she knelt over her kill, separating it into more manageable pieces for drying using only her long, curved blade and brute force. She seemed particularly feral in the dying sunlight, its red glow backlighting her, so that she appeared to be a glowing silhouette, her bright eyes shining in her shadowed face. Yet despite this fearsome scene, Cadoc was amused to note the bridge of her nose was dappled with light grey spots, very similar to freckles. They gave the Orcess a youthful appearance, despite her more beastial, alien features.

She was definitely not a child. His brief glimpse of her half naked body confirmed that easily enough, but she did look quite young. "How old are you?" Cadoc asked her suddenly.

Rukhash looked up from her bloody task with a blank look. "What?" she replied tiredly. Sweat was beading up on her brow, and she wiped it away, leaving a trail of bright blood in its place.

"How old?" Cadoc repeated, shifting so he could better face her.

Rukhash sat back on her heels, counting to herself; mumbling under her breath as her eyes scanned memory. "Er...twenty-three? Maybe twenty-four. Can't be sure, really. I never bothered keepin' track. Twenty-three sounds 'bout right."

"Is that old for an Orc?" Cadoc asked, honestly unsure. He had never known an Orc well enough to ask its age.

With a careless shrug, Rukhash leaned back over the deer, continuing her work. "Yes, and no," she answered vaguely. "Most lads don't live past their teens, what with all the fightin' they do, but twenty's still young. Knew some mean old codgers back in Mordor that were in their hundreds."

This was the first time she had mentioned Mordor, and Cadoc found himself more interested in that than a hundred year old Orc. "I thought you hailed from Isengard," he said, thinking it a fair inquiry. She had already mentioned as much.

Rukhash did not reply. She ran her pink tongue quickly over the sides of her blade, licking the blood off before sheathing it; unaware of Cadoc's disgusted grimace. Gathering up the chunks of meat she had butchered, the Orcess began to skewer them on long sticks. Putting aside the troubling image of her licking a blade, Cadoc began to wonder if she intended to answer him at all. Perhaps it was something she did not wish to discuss...

"I do," Rukhash said at last, "but after the flood, those of us that managed to sneak past the trees headed ta Mordor. The Eye were calling us."

Cadoc was quiet for a long while, trying to imagine the enormous sway the Dark Lord held over his ferocious subjects. The trip from Isengard to Mordor was not an easy one, and Rukhash would have had to pass through leagues of enemy territory to reach the shadowed lands. "What did you do in Mordor?" Cadoc asked, unable to stem his dangerous curiosity.

"This and that," Rukhash said shrugging. She really didn't want to recall her experiences under Lugbúrz in great detail. They were not particularly unpleasant – not until the end, that is – but she wasn't sure Cadoc would understand what happened there; the separation of the children from their mothers, the breeding pits. Rukhash did not relish his reproving glare. It made their conversations much less enjoyable when he was looking down his nose at her. "Patched lads up a lot, but mostly I looked after little Orclings."

"You had children?" Cadoc asked, surprised. Did Orcs mature so quickly? She couldn't have been more than twelve during The War, if his math was right.

"Nar!" she laughed, setting the last skewer near the fire and moving to sit beside him."I was too young for that!" Cadoc felt somewhat relieved by that statement and he wasn't sure why. With a damp cloth, she wiped the blood from her face and hands. "I were a midwife an' a nursemaid," Rukhash continued. "I saw to the newborns."

Cadoc tried to imagine a prepubescent Rukhash rocking dozens of squalling infants, telling them to 'hush and be good, little Orcs'. For some reason, this mental version of her had pigtails, and he caught the inside of his cheek between his molars to suppress his laughter. "I can see why you've been so nurturing," Cadoc said with a smile. "You've had lots of practice."

Rukhash rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Skai, they whined less than you," she teased. "So how old're you then? There's a bit of grey in that hair a yers, so you can't be too young."

Cadoc huffed and crossed his arms. "I'm forty-two," he replied casually. "Still in my prime, in case you were wondering," he said with a pointed look.

Rukhash snorted at that. "So I suppose that makes you old enough to have been fighting during the War, eh granddad?" Rukhash smirked at his deflated expression.

Cadoc wondered, briefly, how much further he should continue this conversation. The Orc's tone was light, but the War was an obvious sore spot for both of them. "I rode east with the men of Lebennin," Cadoc replied soberly.

Rukhash nodded and poked at the fire with a stray stick. "My brother fought on Pelennor Field," Rukhash said quietly.

Cadoc remembered that battle well. The dark hoard had decimated Minas Tirith, and for a brief moment, all hope seemed lost. However, the barges meant to supply the Orcish regimen with Umbar soldiers proved to be filled with the ghostly wraiths of long dead Knights of Dunharrow. They made short work of their enemies, who could do no damage to their foes, and fell in droves beneath the specters' glowing blades.

"I was there," Cadoc admitted, shaking off the ghastly memory. Though the spirits had been on his side of things, Cadoc could not help the unease he had felt in their presence. He could not imagine what had gone through the minds of the Orcs cut down that day. "Did he survive?" Cadoc wasn't sure any of the dark host had survived the assault by the Army of the Dead.

Rukhash confirmed this with a miserable shake of her head, and Cadoc could sense the sorrow that filled her. He had never considered Orcish soldiers to be fathers and brothers and sons. Whatever her brother was in life, his death affected Rukhash profoundly, and in that moment she was not an Orc, but a grieving sister.

Cadoc laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off half-heartedly. "I never would've known, 'cept one of his sniveling captains managed to save his own hide," she said in a shaking voice. "He told me later, after The Fall, when we was all on the run. I wanted to go back to find Thraangzi, I thought if any lived it would've been him, but I learned otherwise."

"I'm sorry," Cadoc said lamely. No words truly comforted such a loss, and it was obvious to Cadoc that she was still pained by it, even after all these years. She and her brother must have been very close, he thought sadly.

Rukhash gave him a long, baleful stare, but dropped her eyes and sighed. "War's war," she said. "There ain't nothin' for it now, I suppose. I'm sure you lost your fair share of kin." Cadoc was not sure he could say that was entirely true. He had lost many comrades, many men that he considered good friends, but his home village was remote and spared the battles. Cadoc was one of the lucky few that had not lost family, but he nodded anyway.

"What happened after you fled Mordor?" Cadoc asked quietly.

"After?" Rukhash replied. She wasn't sure she wanted to talk about after The War. She was still living after. "You know the answer to that, don't you?" Rukhash felt surprisingly calm, despite all she had lost. Perhaps I have raged all the rage out of me, she thought.

"Do I?" Cadoc began to feel worried. She seemed temperate enough, but there was a large accusation in her question.

"I ain't simple, you know," Rukhash said turning a scathing eye on him. "You think I never seen a Ranger's cloak? Or them fancy swords you all carry? And what fool, other than your lot, would be wandering the wilderness on his own?"

Cadoc felt all of his small words catch in his throat. She knew he was a ranger? Of course she knew, he realized. How many times has she had to evade us, I wonder?

"So, why save me then?" he asked with just as much suspicion. "Those wolves would have killed me, and you wouldn't have had to lift a finger. Were you so lonely that my past deeds meant nothing?"

It was true that she knew what he was from the beginning. Rukhash had been wrestling with her decision to bring Cadoc to her cave for the past week, and she came to realize it had to do with more than filling the void of her solitude. A part of her wanted him to understand.

"Fair is fair," she said at length. Cadoc's confused expression demanded an explanation. "I know there were plenty of lads after the war that kept causing your folk trouble, and they made a heap of trouble for the rest of us."

"An' I know..." she paused for a moment, and swallowed uneasily, unsure of how to put this delicately. "I know my lot has always been a little...heavy handed...when it come to your folk–"

"A little heavy handed?" Cadoc interjected furiously. "A little!" Rukhash could see the barely concealed rage in the Ranger's eyes. "Your lot has raped and murdered its way across my country, and you consider that a little heavy handed? Do you know how many lives your kind has destroyed? How many sons and daughters your people have ravaged and maimed? I think you would choose your words more wisely if you saw the children orphaned and mothers now grieving for their sons, if it's even possible for your kind to feel an ounce of compassion at all."

She had been silent through his whole tirade, quietly willing herself not to overreact. They had been getting along fairly well for the past few weeks. She should have expected that peace to be broken sooner or later. Rukhash released a long breath she did not realize she was holding. The pressure at the corner of her eyes made her blink miserably.

"What do you know about anything?" she replied thickly through gritted teeth. She tried to force the sorrow back down, but already she could feel the hot tears on her face. "I were just a girl when I lost my dad and mum and sisters and then my brother and then, after it were all said and done and the War was finished your folk still wanted more. So I loose my clan and my mate and my whelps and now I'm here with nothing."

She was trembling with fury. "I don't need to see them women or them kids because I was one!" she shrieked, "and I thought for a moment to take that out on you while you were bleeding out, but I didn't. I didn't blame you because that weren't fair, because I didn't think it were right to make you pay for shit you didn't do."

Cadoc watched helplessly as the Orc turned away and dissolved into wordless sobbing, her shoulders shaking silently. He could think of nothing to say in the wake of her outburst. Tears from an Orc seemed just as unbelievable as assistance from one, and now Cadoc could honestly say that he had seen both. He felt guilty. There was no reason to berate her for atrocities that she did not commit, especially considering his own tally of Orcish victims.

"Rukhash..." Cadoc began. She turned towards him sharply and in a second she was at his side, the unyielding grip of her fist twisting his collar. Her yellow eyes were red-tinged, puffy, but all the malice he expected from an Orc was in them. She leaned towards him, a feral rumble in the back of her throat. He hadn't anticipated such a swift, vicious turn and Cadoc half expected her to tear out his larynx.

"Don't," she growled at him, her voice low and dangerous. "There ain't nothing you can say to make any of it any different." Rukhash sniffled miserably, and sat back, releasing her hold and pushing him back a little. Despite himself, Cadoc breathed a sigh of relief.

There was a long, quiet moment in which Rukhash retreated from him to wipe her eyes, her expression troubled. Her sorrow was a tangible thing, almost as alive as the Orc in front of him. Cadoc was surprised he had not noticed it before. She had been so cheerful since he woke up, aside from a few, brief flashes of temper, Cadoc would have considered her a generally bright natured individual, but all that cheer hid a great deal of pain.

Cadoc knew that kind of pain. He had lost a family as well, even if it was of his own doing. Without the distraction of his sister and her children, Cadoc wasn't sure how he would have survived the grief.

"In the end it all happened like He said it would," Rukhash said at length, defeated, and Cadoc could hear the long, lonely years in her voice.

"Who said?" he asked in a quiet voice, afraid to rile her up again.

"The Eye," Rukhash growled, remembering the empty promises made to her and the others while they toiled under Lugbúrz, and worse, the very real threats. "He said that if we'd failed 'im, the race of Men would run us down 'til there weren't any more of us. It was us who'd failed. If my folk had won, we'd have done the same to yers as you'd done to us, so fair is fair. I were angry for a long while afterwards, but there ain't really any point in it anymore."

"As for you," she said, giving Cadoc a poignant look, "you just happened to get yourself all banged up at the right time. I weren't looking forward to another winter by myself up here, and I figured if I could make a friend of a ranger, then maybe there was hope. Not sure what kind. A hope fer peace, I guess."

Cadoc releasedt a long breath through his nose, and Rukhash shifted under his intense scrutiny. There was so much that separated their people, too much for any one of them to make up for. But there was a horrible familiarity to the shape of Rukhash's sorrow. An Orc she might be, but she was also a mother; a sister; a widow.

There were many young knights that yearned to hone their swords and their reputations on Orcish necks, and Cadoc had not blamed them. Now, he began to reconsider. There had not been an attack in Gondor – at least none of significance that Cadoc would hear of it – in nearly five years. A wholesale slaughter of Orcs would be no different from the Dark Lord's campaign against the free peoples. Besides, were the Orcs not free people now that the yoke of their master was cast off? And how different could they be from men? If an Orc mourned its kin in the same way men did, could they really be the violent, malevolent monsters long believed?

Cadoc wasn't sure, but the fact that he was left with so many questions rattled beliefs that he had held true for the entirety of his life.

"I suppose it is hard for some to put down their swords once the fighting is done," Cadoc said, finally. Rukhash's triangular ear flicked towards him, and he knew that she was listening.

"I am probably as guilty as any Orc that attacked an unsuspecting village," he admitted, both to her and to himself, and Cadoc was surprised by the weight that statement put on his shoulders. Frowning, the ranger cast his eyes downward to avoid looking at her, unable to meet her eyes. "I find it troubling that you are able to look beyond the harsh history between our people, and save the life of a possible enemy. You show enviable wisdom and kindness."

"It don't take no of wisdom to help someone," Rukhash said quietly, an inscrutable expression on her face. "Just takes a little patience."

Cadoc stared at the Orc for a long time. He owed her more than to sit here and eat her food all winter. She had saved his life. What would she do when he left in spring? Go back to a life of solitary misery? Cadoc found that idea suddenly horrifying. She deserved to be with her own kind again. Coming to a decision, Cadoc took hold of Rukhash's hand. She was startled, but didn't pull away.

"I feel the need to apologize," Cadoc said. Rukhash was quiet, but made no move to wrench herself free. "Not for the war, because that was beyond both of us, and not for what happened after, because that, too, was larger than two people."

"So you're not apologizing at all, then?" Rukhash scowled.

"I am sorry," Cadoc continued, "for thinking less of you, and of your people. If the race of Orc could produce a woman of such virtue, than they could not have been the monsters I have always thought them to be."

Rukhash raised a brow at him. "Virtue," she echoed, a little dumbfounded.

"You have afforded me nothing but patient consideration, and I have not seen fit to look beyond your race. The losses you have suffered grieves me terribly, but I can do nothing to repair that damage." Rukhash nodded silently. Cadoc smiled and released her hand. "I would make a pact with you," Cadoc added.

Rukhash's eyes became round at that. "A... what?"

"A pact," Cadoc repeated, nodding determinedly. "You said your father was from Nûrn."

"Aye..." Rukhash replied, suddenly suspicious.

"Then when my leg is healed, and the snows of winter are passed, I will help you travel to Nûrn. I can only assume you have not gone already because of the threat of Orc hunters between here and Mordor."

Rukhash was a little surprised that Cadoc was so intuitive. She had tried on more than one occasion to make the trip back to Mordor, but had always run into trouble in one form or another, and ended up turning back towards the safety of her hidden mountain cave. "Why would you do that?" she asked, baffled.

"Because I owe you that much for saving my life," Cadoc replied. "And it is the right thing to do."

Rukhash's lips drew into a thin line. "I ain't even sure my dad is still alive," she said. "I don't even know what tribe he's from, just that it's by the sea."

"Do you know his name?"

"Gijakzi," she replied, "but that's a fairly common name for an Orc."

"But you know he was a smith," Cadoc said, and Rukhash nodded, "and you know he was sent to Isengard. Did he mention nothing of his kin in Mordor?"

Rukhash thought hard on that. It had been so long since she last spoke with her dad, but she did recall a few offhanded comments he had made. "He mentioned I had a sister," she said. "He always said I looked like 'er. Hernag – nar – Hinagir, I think her name was."

"That is enough to find his tribe, don't you think?" Cadoc was a little surprised by the way Rukhash's face lit up. She looked...hopeful, and every bit as young as her twenty-three years.

"You'd really do that?" she asked him, her tone awestruck. "You'd really see I had safe passage?"

Cadoc nodded firmly. "I cannot give you leave to pass through Gondor, I don't have that kind of authority, but I will lend my sword to your aid. It is, after all, the duty of a ranger to see a maid safely to her home."

"Ain't no maid," Rukhash said, fixing him with a level stare.

"Young woman, then," Cadoc amended.

Rukhash rolled her large, yellow eyes dramatically. "You and yer pretty words," she snorted. Raising from her kneeling position at his side, she pinched the hunks of drying venison between her claws, checking their progress. Licking the red juice from her fingers, she adjusted their distance from the flame. "These almost burned while we were yackin'," she grumbled, but her tone seemed unworried and her mood was light.

As she milled about the fire, poking at various skewers, she kept glancing up at him and worrying her lip between her fangs. Bemused, Cadoc felt the need to mention it. "What?" he said. The smell of cooking meat was filling the cave now, and his stomach rumbled loudly.

"Hungry?" the Orcess asked as she plucked a few of the smaller pieces off of their sticks and arranged them on a plate.

"I am," Cadoc replied, "but don't change the subject. Why do you keep looking at me like that?"

Rukhash blinked innocently at him. "Like what?"

"I'm not sure," Cadoc admitted. "Like you intend to say something, but keep thinking better of it."

"Gar," she grumbled as she laid the plate near him, "guess I'm just happy."

"We're not on the way to Mordor yet," Cadoc replied soberly. "There's still the issue of my injury, and the long winter ahead, and it will be weeks of travel after we do leave. Maybe more, if we are to avoid the larger towns and cities."

Rukhash narrowed her eyes at him. "You really know how to suck all the fun outta a moment, don't you?" she said crossly.

"I have been accused of worse crimes," Cadoc replied as he took a messy bite out of his dinner. Cadoc suddenly eyed the dish with interest. It had been bothering him for a while, how she had acquired the decorated ceramics she kept serving their food in. They certainly didn't seem Orcish make, at least, not compared to the plain clay or wood containers and bowls she used for her medicines. And where did one find giant, cast iron pots in the middle of the White Mountains?

"Where did you get these dishes?" he asked suspiciously. "And the pots, also?"

She fixed him with a startled look and frowned. "Right where you think." Rukash said after a pause while she filled her own, mismatched bowl. "I stole 'em." Her voice was surprisingly light as she said this, as though she preferred to make jest of her thievery.

"From where?" Cadoc asked, concerned.

"Here 'n there," she replied cryptically. "Didn't hurt no one. Just snuck around old farmsteads till I found a barn or a back door what was open." Rukhash took a large bite out of her own dinner. "Yud be suprised hoo'll leaf deir dooths open," she sputtered around her mouthful, little bits of charred flesh flicking out from between her sharp teeth.

"And no one was hurt?" Cadoc did not sound convinced.

"Think I'm lyin', do ya?" she said after swallowing. Her tone conveyed her offense. "A girl by herself ain't looking fer no trouble. I were in and out afore anyone knew I were there. Most of the spots I'd found were abandoned anyhow."

"I do not think you are lying," Cadoc assured her, and truly he didn't. "I suppose I am just impressed by your stealth. I have never thought of Orcs as...stealthy."

Rukhash looked insulted. "We're plenty stealthy when we want. Sha! How you gonna sneak up on nobody bein' not stealthy?"

"Fair enough," Cadoc granted.

"What you think I raped and murdered for 'em?" Rukhash said accusingly, a rumbling growl forming in her throat. Her eyes flashed dangerously.

"I never said that," Cadoc replied raising his hands in a disarming gesture, annoyed with himself that he said anything at all. He had no intention of insulting her again. In truth, it was an unfair question to ask. Her pots and pans and dishes were obviously made by men. They bore patterns and designs similar to those found in Southern Rohan, but they were very old and worn, even though she seemed to keep them in the cleanest condition she could. Cadoc just wanted to be sure, he supposed. "I was just curious," he explained.

Rukhash's bottom lip firmed. Her crinkled nose and sharp eyes told him that she was angered by his inquiry, and he couldn't blame her. Cadoc would be insulted as well if someone had insinuated he had done murder over saucers. "I'm sorry," he said for the second time that evening. "I suppose I still have many prejudices to overcome this winter."

Rukhash's anger seemed to dissipate easily. She couldn't really stay mad at this man, not when he had made such a significant promise to her. She shrugged and smiled ruefully. "Still stole 'em, I guess," she said with a cheeky smirk and continued her supper.

Cadoc laughed out loud at that. He supposed the price of peace, real peace – the kind that all the people of Middle Earth could enjoy – was a little understanding, or at least, tolerance. Cadoc couldn't exactly condone what she had done, but he understood Rukhash's motives. After all, she could not simply stroll into a town in western Gondor and trade furs and Orc medicines for what she needed.

The rest of their meal was shared in relative silence. Rukhash checked the drying meat and rendering fat again, and the busied herself with the task of tidying her little cave. Cadoc had quickly fallen asleep, his light snores punctuated by the pop and crackle of the fire. She banked the hearth for the night and tucked herself into bed.

Wrapped up in her fur blanket, she found herself staring at Cadoc while he slept across the way. She hoped he spoke true when he promised to see her safely to Mordor. Her earlier attempts to travel there had always brought more danger than she cared to face. Rukhash was not a warrior. She was a healer, and more recently, a hunter. She had faced the random Orc slayer and ranger in her years alone, but she had no desire to face a small army, like the one that decimated her second clan.

They had worked so hard to remain hidden in the northern mountains, and after six years they all assumed that the race of men would forget about them, and they would be safe.

Rukhash would never shake the guilt of her absence while Orc hunters slew the children and other females in the den. She had been out gathering herbs and supplies for her clan sister's impending birth and to heal her own hurts after the tumultuous birth of her son, and had only returned when she smelled the thick stench of burning flesh on the crisp mountain breeze. Rukhash knew, even as she raced back to the caverns, that she was already too late, and was most likely rushing to meet her doom.

The air was choked with smoke. The hearth fires had run amuck and now the pallets and tools inside their cave burned. Rukhash could scent charred flesh as well, but she refused to believe that the men had already reached the den, where the pregnant women and children usually remained.

There were no sounds of battle. No clashing broadswords or guttural yells, and that alone should have made her turn around. Whatever happened here was over, and there would be nothing she could do about it. Still, Rukhash dared to hope as she descended into the shallow tunnel that let to their den. Her mate was large and strong. Certainly, he would have kept their young safe...

It was pitch dark inside the cave, the reek of death like a blanket over her. Rukhash stumbled on something large and fleshy. Despite her horror, she bent to touch the wet, soft mound in front of her. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, Rukhash could make out the stocky build of Drautran. The larger female's swollen belly was slick and sticky with blood, and Rukhash could feel the deep gash across her side that spilled the female's insides onto the cave floor. She could make out the forms of the other Orcesses laying in similar positions. Some had fallen with weapons in hand, others were further in the semicircle of bodies, obviously acting as a shield for the children that lay in their own, bloodied heap at the center.

A keening sob escaped Rukhash's throat as she caught sight of her young daughter and newborn son. She clamored through the corpses to pull them both into her arms. Their throats were neatly cut, and their eyes were closed peacefully, a cruel guise that made them appear as if they were sleeping and might wake at any moment. Her beautiful Rangmau and sturdy Raugvarg, dead as surely as the twelve other whelps born to the clan in the past six springs. Their father was most likely slain as well, along with the other males who would have fought the Orc hunters before they could reach the cave. Anbagûrz would never have allowed this to happen to their children if he were alive.

The muffled chatter reached her ears before she could make out what was being said, but she knew instinctively that whoever was approaching was no Orc.

"This way Dran," the singsong voice of a tark male called out. "There's still the heap of 'em in here."

"Oi," another, gruffer tark answered, "not so fast lad! We should wait for the others before going in."

Rukhash sneered into the darkness. Without a second thought, she pried a long, serrated blade from the death grip of another female. Fittingly enough, it was Shapag, her face frozen forever in a terrible roar. She was the largest female of their group, their den mother and the fiercest warrior. Rukhash closed the Black Uruk's glassy eyes, reverently asking her dead comrade to lend a lesser warrior a little of her skill.

Bloody vengeance would be done, even if she only managed to kill one of the men that approached.

Rukhash crept through the narrow tunnel just as a younger man blotted out the light from the entrance. Dressed in blood splattered, leather armor, his posture was relaxed and his sword remained buckled at his hip. His head was turned to the side as he regarded his comrade.

"Don't be so skittish, old man," he laughed, raising his gloved hand to comb through a mass of bedraggled dark hair. "The lot of them are dead."

"You don't know that for certain," warned a voice to the young man's right. "We always may have missed one. Keep your eyes sharp." Rukhash gauged the second man as being positioned fairly close. She ducked into the shadows, sure that she could fell the first and reach the second before he could raise his sword.

Rukhash tensed, her whole body coiled like a viper, and waited.

The young man braced himself against the stone wall as he stepped into the tunnel. He turned to watch his step on the treacherous rocks of the cavern floor, and finally caught Rukhash's steely, golden gaze where she crouched along the notched wall.

His mouth opened in a shout, but only succeeded in producing a gurgling cough. Rukhash had already sprung forward, the black blade poised in front of her as she ran the young Orc hunter through the middle and drew the blade out just as quickly, it's jagged teeth sawing through his innards easily. He fell forward gracelessly, still alive. Rukhash did not waste time on finishing him quickly. He would be dead soon enough.

In the span of a heartbeat, she had leapt out of the crevice to face the second man she knew was there. This man was older, and obviously more experienced. His blade was already drawn, flashing menacingly in the noonday sun. Driven by a rage even greater than what she had known in Mordor, Rukhash swung wildly at him, hoping her inherent strength would throw off his balance.

It didn't.

The older man parried her attack easily and brought his sword around to slice her across the chest, cutting deep. She yelped in surprised pain and quietly marveled at his speed, but did not cease her assault. Her second swing met with less success, and the Orc hunter disarmed her completely, knocking her to the ground and flinging her weapon into the dense undergrowth. The hunter raised the sword hilt above his head, prepared to stab down into her, but Rukhash refused to yield quietly. Lashing at him with her claws, she managed to gouge above the knee, unbalancing him. Rukhash righted herself as the man tripped backwards and launched at him. He fell on his back as she pounced on top, and her world became a feral fury of gnashing teeth and rending claws.

Dimly, she could hear him screaming in agony above her own, cacophonous roar, and for that brief moment she felt pure satisfaction in her triumph.

Finally the Orc hunter was dead, and she stood above him gasping for air, the metallic taste of his blood filling her mouth and overwhelming her sense of smell. In the distance she could hear other men shouting, haloo-ing and calling for their now-dead fellows. They were coming closer, and the sound of innumerable boots running through the undergrowth drowned out the heady rush of her reprisal.

She should have stayed. She should have stood her ground and fought until she could fight no more, but Rukhash was no warrior.

Plucking Shapag's Orcish blade from the bushes, Rukhash fled into the wilderness.

Translations

Lugbúrz: The Orcish word for Barad-dûr

Nar: No, a negative response

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