Chapter Twenty-Six: Digging

They marched all of the next day, skirting the outer perimeter of the forest, and part of the day after that. Bragdagash was eager to close the distance between themselves and the mountains. They were larger on the horizon now, close enough that they no longer looked white, their flanks gray and pitted with scars like the irregular skin of a sickly goblin. There was tree growth about the base of the mountains, and some scruffy greenery ran up the side of the left-most slope. Otherwise they appeared stony and barren. Hardly a welcoming sight to Maevyn's way of thinking, but the Orc chief's eyes glinted with a hard dark gleam when he looked at them.

What did mountains mean to Bragdagash? Did they mean another village, or something else entirely? Maevyn thought of eagles and her stomach responded queasily. "But we would have seen eagles by now, if there were eagles," she said to Leni, like it was Leni she was reassuring and not herself.

"Maybe," said the Elf. "These mountains are far larger than that mountain was, though, do you see? And I think that is snow at the top…" She looked to the higher peaks as she spoke.

"The sky is clear though," Maevyn insisted. "We'd've seen 'em flying."

Leni shrugged. "You are probably right," she agreed.

The easy way she said it annoyed Maevyn. She thought that Leni should be more invested in the answer.

"So what if there are eagles?" asked Mushog in passing. "Scared we'll send you for another climb, eh?" He grinned at Maevyn.

"I'm not scared," she said, squaring her shoulders and giving him a contemptuous look that made him laugh. But when he had gone her shoulders slumped and she looked toward the mountains again, plucking unconsciously at the material of her skirt.

They had made an early stop because of Grymawk. Not that Bragdagash said this was why, but it was obvious. For all of Rukshash's efforts, things weren't going so well for Grymawk. Two days Hrahragh had carried him per Bragdagash's orders, but it did him little good. By their second day of travel he hung on Hrahragh's back with no attempt to support his own weight, his face gone slack and heavy, his forehead oily with sweat. It was after the chief had looked him over, during their midday breather, that Bragdagash said they would go on and make camp…preparatory, he warned, for a big push on the morrow.

Stopping did not mean rest for Maevyn. She had the job of tending Grymawk. That was Rukshash's doing: he had not forgotten her poor showing with the water two nights before and had been her constant taskmaster ever since, making her change the dressings on Grymawk's thigh, boil old rags and fetch clean dry ones, wash the wound herself and dry it too once he had checked it over for any foulness or swelling. It was not pleasant work, but Maevyn did as she was told. She knew that she would receive swift punishment for being insolent or squeamish: Rukshash had made himself clear enough. More than that, though, she felt pity for Grymawk. It was obvious that he didn't feel well. His words were slurred when he spoke, and his red eyes were fever-bright and stupid.

"He's taken wound fever," was what Rukshash said. He held his hand over Grymawk's stitches. "Feel that?"

Maevyn put her hand out with some hesitation and the old Orc caught it impatiently, pressing it against Grymawk's thigh. The girl's eyes widened. Crude stitches bristled beneath her palm like an angry caterpillar, but it was the heat of Grymawk's skin that shocked her.

"Hot, eh?" Rukshash let her go, smirking as she wiped her hand reflexively on her skirt. "I've seen plenty worse. Just a pity we had to stitch him up, that's all. Better to bind a bite wound than to stitch it."

"Well then why did you then?" she asked.

Rukshash snorted. "Use your head! He couldn't very well go about with a chunk of his inner thigh flapping open, now could he? It wanted the stitching I gave it." He turned his head sidelong and spat. "If only the little fool had accommodated us by being bitten somewhere else. The arm, maybe, or the back. Any place but between the legs…"

Maevyn stared at him, nonplussed. "But he'll get better," she said finally. "'Cause you've seen worse."

"So I have," he agreed. He eyed Grymawk. "Course, I've also seen a lot better."

That noncommittal attitude wasn't much to Maevyn's liking, and it wasn't to Bragdagash's either. Getting on to evening he came by to see how Grymawk fared, and he did not look happy with what he found. "Sha. He looks worse than he did before. There's no way he'll be fit to travel tomorrow…"

"Not likely, no," said Rukshash.

Bragdagash frowned. "I'm willing to give it a day, but after that he'll just have to make do with being carried again." His frown deepened as he looked at Rukshash. "Nothing more you can do for him, then," he said, like he thought the other Orc might be holding out on him.

Rukshash just looked back at him coolly. "I'm keeping him clean and fed and watered. Beyond that, what he needs is rest."

The Uruk scowled. It was obviously he didn't care for this response one bit. "He's getting a day," he said as he walked away from them.

Rukshash chuckled darkly. "Here's a lesson for you," he muttered to Maevyn, who had kept quiet during this exchange. "Never get old. They just expect more of you. Figure if you've been around this long, you must know something they don't."

Maevyn's brow furrowed. She had been brought up to respect her elders. Maybe she hadn't always been good about it, but it was what she had been taught. As for the Orkish viewpoint on such matters, the others weren't exactly respectful of Rukshash, but they still paid attention to what he said. "So don't you?" she asked. "Know something they don't know, I mean?"

He cocked his head. "What do you think?"

Maevyn looked at the old Orc with his ugly face and crooked smile. A number of responses came to mind. She kept all of them to herself.

Rukshash laughed. "You may live to be old yet."

-.-.-.-

Grymawk wasn't Maevyn's only responsibility. The entire band was at loose ends: ordering Squeaker and the Brat around was a good way to while away the hours, and both were kept very busy indeed. It wasn't much fun being told to repack Shrah'rar's pack for the fourth time running, or fetch Mushog another skin of Orc-drought, or scratch Pryszrim's dirty back for him, or dig a jakes big enough for the purposes of ten Orcs and their two slaves.

That last was definitely the most labor-intensive. It was on Bragdagash's say-so, and he was not in a good humor. Maevyn, who had never been ordered to make a bagronk before and didn't understand what Bragdagash wanted, received a clout before he realized she wasn't just backtalking. At that point he sighed gustily and called for Kurbag's Elf to come and show her how.

Left to her own devices, Maevyn would have dug a hole any old place and been done with it. Unlike Maevyn, however, Leni had done this before. "It should be further away from camp," she said. "And it is better to go where the ground is at an incline." It was the work of minutes to find a suitable patch of earth. Once they had settled on the spot Leni said that they needed to clear away the grass first before they began the real digging. "It does not have to be very deep, but it does need to be wide." She began using a flat piece of bone to cut into the turf.

"Where did you get that?" Maevyn demanded. It looked like the shoulderblade of an animal.

"I asked Kurbag for something to dig with. Do you want to ask Grushak?" Maevyn glared at the suggestion and Leni shrugged. "Then you must ask one of the others, or be willing to make do with your hands."

She had not offered Maevyn the use of her own tool. Of course Maevyn would just have refused it, but the snub made her sullen. She scowled in the direction of the massive forest they had been circling. Probably, if she went there, she could find a stick or something else that she could use for digging, but the forest gave her a funny feeling. The Orcs did not want to go in it, and neither did she. Then she brightened as she thought of something else. "Wait a minute!" she said, scrambling to her feet.

Leni waited for some time before Maevyn came back. There was something pressed close beneath her arm. Pulling away the rag that covered it, she revealed a plate of burnished silver: a bright and gleaming disk of polished light. This time it was Leni's turn to be surprised. "Where did you get that?"

"It was in Grymawk's pack. I thought I would look in there for something to dig with. He's sick anyways so I don't have to ask him." Maevyn was feeling very pleased with herself.

Leni had taken the plate into her hands and was examining it. "This is very fine work," she marveled. "It is of Elven make. I wonder where he found it."

Maevyn didn't want to think about that. The image came to her, unasked, of an open oaken trunk, a monstrous figure holding up a wedding cup. "Took it from someone, I'm sure. Like they all do."

Leni ran her fingers slowly over the elegant embossed design that ran around the edge of the plate. There was a queer look in her eyes, as though it reminded her of something she had lost. Then, surprisingly, she laughed. Handing it back to Maevyn, she said, "I am trying to imagine the face of its maker, if he could see how you intend to use it. Here now, do as I do."

With two to dig, the task was grubby but manageable. In some ways it was like preparing the ground before making a fire. They cut away the groundcover to expose a rectangular patch of thick, dark loam, then dug into the earth itself, scooping out a narrow trench some four feet in length and piling up the displaced soil at one end. Leni explained this was for anyone using the pit to drop some of the earth in afterward, to help cover up the smell. She was very methodical and matter-of-fact about the whole thing, leading Maevyn to ask how often she had done it before. "Not very often. Bragdagash only orders that a pit be dug when he plans to keep the same camp for some time. We do not usually stay in one place for more than two days in a row, so there is not the need."

"But he told Rukshash we weren't staying more than one more day," Maevyn argued.

Leni shrugged. "If that is what he said, that is what he said."

Maevyn thought about this. Her cheek still stung from the blow that Bragdagash had given her, and she didn't like him much at the moment, but it took some of the edge off her resentment. Whether it was because he really cared about Grymawk or, as Rukshash said, he just didn't want to lose his only archer, he was obviously resigned to keeping camp for more than just another day.

"Grymawk is very ill, then," Leni commented.

"You've seen him, haven't you?" Propped up beside the fire, he wasn't easy to miss.

The Elf nodded, looking at her thoughtfully. "If he died, there would be nine of them."

It was a line of thinking close to Maevyn's own, or at least to how she had thought before. Now she was not as sure how she felt about the idea. Grymawk was an Orc, but it wasn't like he was Grushak. She did not like seeing him sick. She searched for the words that would explain what she felt, but, "I don't hate Grymawk," was the best that she could manage.

"He has not hurt you."

Maevyn made a face. Grymawk might be small, but he still hit hard enough when he was annoyed.

"I mean he has not been cruel to you. Real cruelty, finding pleasure in your pain… Has he been cruel to you?" Leni asked suddenly. Maevyn shook her head and she nodded again. "When you are long among cruel folk," she said, "an absence of cruelty can start to look like kindness. Indifference becomes a kind of virtue. It is an easy mistake to make."

The words were simply spoken, but there was a sadness behind them. Maevyn felt a responsive ache in the pit of her stomach. She covered it over with a grumble. "You sound like an old grandmama. We dug the hole—now what?"

Leni smiled wryly. "We tell Bragdagash that we have done as he asked, and we let the others know where it is before someone steps in it."

The possibility hadn't crossed Maevyn's mind to this point, but a wide grin spread on her face at the thought. Better than that: she imagined an earth pockmarked with holes like an enormous cheese, every one of them perfect for tripping stupid Orcs who did not look where they were going. As they headed back she expounded her grand vision to Leni, conjuring it up with such extravagance that Leni forgot her sadness before the younger girl's enthusiasm.

"My hands are tired enough from digging one hole!" she protested, laughing. "Are yours not tired as well?"

"I'd work extra for this," said Maevyn fervently.

Both girls were giggling when they nearly stumbled upon Nazluk. He was kneeling in the long grass, placing a snare. When he rose up in front of them his face was full of anger, though he kept his voice to a low snarl. "There's not a rabbit in miles that cannot hear you snaga and your stupidity. Where have you been for so long, eh?"

He was looking at Leni, but Maevyn answered him back in Orkish. "Bagronk garmogug."

Nazluk rolled his eyes at her. "Lat ha gujab-lat. Give it over, Brat. You sound like you're speaking underwater… What's that under your arm?"

"Nothing," said Maevyn, backing away from him, but Nazluk stepped forward, catching her by the elbow. She had pulled the rag back down over the silver plate again, but a stray gleam beneath one treacherous fold had betrayed it. When Nazluk grabbed her arm it slid out and fell into the grass.

Still holding Maevyn, Nazluk stepped on it, staring down at the plate from his full height. "Funny," he said at last. "It doesn't look like nothing. Where did you find it, hmm?"

Maevyn glared at him, and Leni spoke up. "Leave her be, Nazluk. Let her put it back. You know she was not stealing it. What good would it do her?"

"I know nothing of the kind, nor do I care. I want to know where it came from." His nails dug into Maevyn's arm. She clenched her teeth responsively, determined not to say anything, and after a moment she felt Nazluk's grip relax. "All right, then. Go on and pick it up."

She made no move to do so until she felt his hand leave her arm. Then she dropped into a squat, grabbing the plate and quickly wrapping it up again. As she did so she looked up at Nazluk's face. He was staring at her. When she stood up she half expected him to grab her again, but he did not.

Instead, he seized Leni.

Maevyn hissed, not perturbing Nazluk in the slightest. He only jerked his head at her. "Go on then. You go put it back. We'll just follow at our own pace, yes?"

She looked at Leni, who flinched in Nazluk's grip. Snarling under her breath, she turned away from them both, walking toward camp. As she did so she tried to make her body relax. The last thing she needed was for her stiff gait to draw attention. She hoped, as she began passing amongst the Orcs, that she was doing a good enough job at looking calm, but she felt no calmer on the inside. She imagined the plate beneath her arm grown massive and unwieldy, impossibily conspicuous, even under the rag that covered it. Her ears strained for any sound from behind her…it would be easy for Nazluk to call out and set the others upon her…but she knew that he was following, Leni in tow, to see where the plate had come from.

None of the others spoke to her or seemed to give any notice as she approached the band's assorted baggage. After all, she was sent to fetch things all the time. She knelt down beside one of the packs, quickly unfastening and drawing back the flap. Resisting the urge to look around, she shifted the object she carried out from under her arm and slid it inside. Once she had closed it again she remained crouching for a moment, knowing that Nazluk's eyes were on her. Then she stood up, looking back at him defiantly.

The others might not have noticed her, but they had certainly noticed Nazluk, coming back with his arm locked around Leni. "Here Naz, that's more friendly than you usually are with Squeaker. Had a bit of fun then, eh?"

Nazluk's mouth curled in a sneer as he pulled away from her. "She has her uses from time to time, I suppose." For all that such a dalliance was out of character for him, the satisfaction on his face was convincing enough. And why shouldn't he be pleased? He had seen which pack the girl had opened. He knew exactly who it belonged to, and his mind was already playing with the possibilities.

Leni, for her part, looked distressed. If she could have gone to Maevyn immediately she would have done so. But with both girls back the others quickly found their own uses for them. Grymawk's leg needed re-bandaging. Pryszrim could not find his whetstone. Had they dug a jakes yet? Why hadn't they said so, then, and where in Gorthaur's name was it? It was close to evening now: there was meat to be cooked, hungry Orcs demanding food, and it was some time before Leni could snatch a moment with Maevyn.

"Why did you do that?" she whispered during a lull in their work. "That was not Grymawk's pack!"

Maevyn rolled her eyes at her. "You think I don't know that, huh?"

"It was foolish of you. Grushak will be furious. Have you moved it yet? You should do so while you have the chance."

"What for? He won't know that I'm the one who put it there."

"He will if Nazluk tells him you did."

"Sha. You think Nazluk's gonna do that? He's up to something funny himself, isn't he, or he would've told the others that I had it. Why should he care where I got it from, anyway?"

"They are not supposed to keep treasures for themselves! They are supposed to pass the most valuable things to Bragdagash. Now Nazluk thinks that Grushak is holding it back…"

Someone called for another skin of Orc draught and Leni darted away, leaving Maevyn to ponder this. She felt doubly glad now that she hadn't put the plate in Grymawk's pack, at least not while Nazluk was watching. At the same time, she knew it was a dangerous game that she played, one that was only going to get her in trouble. As cavalier as she had pretended to be with Leni, a cold sick feeling filled her gut.

So I will move it, she told herself. As soon as I get the chance…

But when she looked in Grushak's pack later, the plate was gone.

-.-.-.-

Disclaimer: Tolkien's works, characters and concepts are copyright J. R. R. Tolkien. The story Orc-brat and the characters and events introduced in "Chapter Twenty-Six: Digging" are all copyright The Lauderdale (cartoon6 at hotmail dot com). "Chapter Twenty-Six" published March 2, 2011 and last edited December 24, 2012.

Bagronk garmogug. "Digging a cesspit."

Lat ha gujab-lat. "You eat your own tongue." Nazluk doesn't much care for Maevyn's glottal approach to Orkish.