Sorry it took me so long to update -- I was sick for a while, and then I was just sort of distracted by other things. But I really wanted to get back to this story because I was so close to being done. Anyway, this is the last chapter. Thank you to everyone who left such kind and wonderful reviews!
A rhythmic rasping sounded intruded on her sleep. Blinking, Lynneth opened her eyes to the cool gray half-darkness of a snowy morning. She was in her own bed, the heavy covers pulled up to her chin, and she felt warmer than she had in quite some time. The answer to the unexpected warmth was also the source of the unfamiliar sound: Ulfakh lay sprawled next to her, black hair scattered across the bolster, as he emitted a guttural snore. It seemed orc blood ran hotter than that of normal men; Lynneth could feel the heat emanating from his body, as if he were some sort of oversized bed warmer.
And he had warmed far more than her bed...
The blood rushed to her cheeks then as she recalled the events of the evening before. Not once, but twice they had made love on the rug before the fire, and then Ulfakh had picked her up and brought her to her bed, where they came together in passion one final time before both finally collapsing into a sleep so deep that she didn't even have time to pull on her warm night chemise. If it weren't for Ulfakh's presence she most certainly would have awoken chilled, but as it was she felt warm and safe, and utterly content. Perhaps what they had done the night before was madness. Perhaps she was mad to look on him even now and feel another wave of desire pass over her.
As if he felt her gaze on him, Ulfakh opened his eyes slowly, irises showing red under the line of thin black lashes. He stared back at her for a long moment, then said, "So this is what a bed feels like."
Lynneth looked at him blankly for the span of a few heartbeats, and then a low laugh escaped her. She couldn't help it. After everything they'd shared the night before, the only thing worthy of comment for the Uruk-hai was the bed?
From his puzzled expression she gathered he couldn't understand the source of her amusement, and she wasn't sure she could explain it to him. Instead she moved closer to him and pressed her body against his. "I want to know what you feel like," she said.
He needed no further encouragement. His hands moved against her naked body, and his mouth sought hers. With no other preamble they joined, as he filled her once more and she tangled her fingers in his heavy long hair. The climax came with shocking suddenness, and Lynneth fell back against the bolster, gasping for air and letting the waves of pleasure slowly recede from her body, even as she wondered at her own wantonness. Oh, once Timon had told her that her blood ran hotter than the fires of Mount Doom, and it was true from the very beginning of her marriage that she had always enjoyed the physical act of love. She had thought it was merely her natural attraction to her husband, but perhaps it went deeper than that. After all, she had had no basis of comparison up until now.
Ulfakh naturally was rougher and wilder than Timon had ever been, but she had met his passion with her own. Even as he rolled away from her and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, she could see the livid scratch marks her nails had left against his dark skin, reddish between the paler scars that criss-crossed his back. She wondered how he had gotten them.
Unabashedly naked, he went to the bedroom door and on out into the great room, where their clothing still lay discarded from the evening before. After a few seconds' hesitation, Lynneth pushed her way out of bed as well and gathered up a clean chemise from the clothes press, then pulled it over her head. Perhaps Ulfakh had no problem wandering around the house with nothing on, but Lynneth couldn't quite find it in her to do that. Besides, a chill had spread through the house. They had let the fire gutter out some time the night before.
He had already pulled on his breeches and was poking at the sullen coals as she entered the room. In the gray light of the morning after, the dirty dishes and scattered clothing on the floor seemed to mock the passion that had spent itself there the previous evening. With a sigh, Lynneth went to the dining table and began gathering up the plates and serving bowls. They would need a good soak in some hot water before she could even begin to scrub them.
Behind her she could see the fire come back to life under the Uruk-hai's careful tending. At least there had been some coals left. She paused for a moment to watch him as he worked, his heavy brow furrowed in concentration, the deep reddish-amber glow of his eyes seeming to reflect the color of the reawakened fire.
I love you, she thought suddenly, and then felt a wave of fear wash over her. How could she love him? Desire, a need to fight the loneliness that had threatened to swallow her up -- these she could understand. But the warmth that had flooded over her as she watched him was too like the first time she realized she was in love with Timon -- when the young woodcarver had suddenly turned and looked up from his work bench, and the morning sun caught his green-gray eyes and made them shimmer like sunlight on water. The realization had rocked her back then, and it was worse now. To love Timon, a promising young man, was one thing. To love Ulfakh, an orc and an outcast, was completely different.
She knew she should push the traitorous thoughts away. But love, after all, could not be summoned and dismissed at will. All she could do was think of the thousand and one small kindnesses he had shown her, his quiet strength, even the touches of humor he showed at the oddest times. Of course he was an Uruk-hai, a different race than she altogether, but that didn't mean he was a monster.
As if feeling her stare, Ulfakh looked up from the fire and gazed back at her calmly. Lynneth prayed that none of her inner turmoil showed on her face.
He gave her a slight frown, but said nothing, instead rising to his feet and brushing his hands against his breeches as he did so. "I'll bring in more wood," he said, and went out the front door, even though his torso was bare to the freezing morning.
Her heart seemed to resume its normal rhythm. Then, with a sigh, she went on into the kitchen, and tried to force her mind away from its troubling new knowledge. What she was supposed to do next, she had no idea.
A day passed, and another. Each night she and Ulfakh made love in the bed she had once shared with her husband, and each day she found it more difficult to conceal her feelings. Winter had closed in around them, and each day she blessed the snow as it fell. With the forest paths impassable, she certainly wouldn't have to worry about anyone -- namely Thrandor -- taking it into his head to come and see how she fared.
Whenever possible, she watched Ulfakh closely to see if there were anything in his voice or aspect that would betray a reciprocation of her feelings. But she could see no real change, save that he was more open in touching her, and more than once they had let passion overtake them in the middle of the day, several times not even bothering to leave the great room to make love. After all, the warmest place in the house was on the hearth rug in front of the fire.
But each day Lynneth could feel the pressure building up within her, and each day it became more and more difficult to remain silent. Finally an evening came when a new storm blew down off the shoulders of the White Mountains, and the little house shook with each gust of wind. Ulfakh dropped a new load of wood into the basket by the hearth and stood there, holding his chapped hands out to the fire.
A piece of mending lay neglected in Lynneth's lap. She watched him for a long moment, noting how his slick black hair had begun to work its way out of the suede thong with which he had tied it back. Then she said simply, "I love you."
He turned at that, and gave her an unreadable look out of his blood-colored eyes.
The following silence was even more dreadful than Lynneth had feared it would be. They stared at one another, the Uruk-hai expressionless as far as she could tell. Eru only knew what might be revealed in her own features.
She swallowed and said, "I understand if you -- don't."
Another endless moment, and then he replied, "Love is for men. Not orcs."
A knot began to form in her throat, and Lynneth forced herself to look down at her mending. Mechanically she picked it up and stabbed the sharp needle through the coarse linen. What else had she expected, after all? How could an orc even know what love was?
A drop of moisture fell on the shirt she held, and she stared at it as the linen absorbed the water. At first she thought the roof must be leaking, then realized it was her own tear that stained the fabric. That thought only increased the choking sensation in her throat, and with a sudden angry gesture she flung the the garment to one side and stood. What she intended, she didn't know -- she only knew that she had to get out of there and away from Ulfakh's slightly baffled stare. But no sooner had she gained her feet than he crossed the few paces that separated them and seized her by the arm.
Knowing it was useless to fight against him -- even now she feared he might be bruising her arm -- Lynneth halted and glared up at him. How stupid she was. What on earth had possessed her to do something so foolish --
He said, "I don't know anything of love." Before she could speak, he pressed a callused finger against her lips. "But if it means wanting to spend all your days with someone, to ache when they're gone, and wait on their smiles, then I must love you."
A bright fountain of joy seemed to burst forth within her, and she had no words. She kissed the finger he held on her mouth, and then he lifted her face to his and kissed her back, harder and harder, until she felt as if the world had begun to melt around her. Then his arms went around her, and she was being lifted up, taken away to the bedroom, where he laid her down and proceeded to show her exactly how much he did love her.
Some time later she swam up into consciousness just enough to think, I could die now and be happy, before his body reclaimed her once again, and there was nothing but a warm red-tinged darkness and the endless, shuddering echoes of her ecstasy.
Winter began to stretch into spring, and the patches of bare earth between the trees seemed to spread with each passing day. Normally Lynneth welcomed the return of spring and its promise of warmth and green growing things, but the coming of spring now only threatened the isolation that had sheltered her and her lover from the world's prying eyes.
Finally Ulfakh faced her, on a day early in March, when a soft wind from the south threatened the last borders of ice beneath the trees. "They will come soon, you know."
She lifted her face into the breeze, breathing in the sharp scent of life reawakening, the richness of the black muddy earth beneath her feet. "I know."
"They cannot know I was here. If they find me, they will kill me -- and possibly you as well, for such unnatural behavior."
She wondered how he could sound so calm, but although he had spoken little to her of his time serving Saruman she knew Ulfakh had been bred for one thing: to kill before he was killed. Death held little terror for him. But it was one thing to die in battle and quite another to be hunted down just because of other people's foolish prejudices. Still, she knew he was right. The hatred of Ulfakh's kind ran deep, and no protestations of his relative innocence or his worth as a living, thinking being would keep the people of her village from destroying him -- not just for what he was, but also for despoiling a daughter of Gondor. Certainly they would never believe that she could possibly have loved him.
But how can I bear it? she thought. How can I bear to lose him as well? Can I love no one without having them taken from me?
Although she did not voice the cry aloud, some of her despair must have etched itself on her features. Ulfakh reached out and ran a rough hand down the side of her face, cupping her cheek in his oversized palm. "Do not think I wish this," he said. "But no harm should come to you because of me." And with that he turned and stalked back into the house, his anger and frustration seeming to radiate out from every rigid limb.
When she awoke the next morning, he was gone.
At first she thought he had only gone out to check on the animals, or to bring more wood for the fire. But she could see no sign of him anywhere, and when she finally returned to her room and thought to check the drawer in the clothes press he had used, she saw that all the garments she had made for him were gone. Only then did she sink back down on the bed, the awful aching emptiness taking hold of her, pressing down so heavily she couldn't even find the strength to weep.
Perhaps he had only thought to spare her. Certainly every day he lingered had increased the likelihood that he would be discovered. And whatever idle fancies might have told her otherwise, she knew that where he had gone she could not follow. She was not meant for a harsh life in hiding.
Moving slowly, feeling far older than her three-and-twenty summers, Lynneth stood and made her way through the house, out into the garden that fronted the building. The roses that bordered the path had just begun to put forth reddish-dark leaves. She suddenly remembered how Ulfakh had helped her prune them some two months earlier, and finally the tears came. Her legs seemed to give way, and she sank to the muddy ground, letting the wracking sobs overtake her body. It seemed as if everywhere she turned she thought of Ulfakh, thought of the sound of his voice and the way his arms had felt around her. How could she go on without him?
She had no idea how long she remained thus. But the earth was cold and damp beneath her, and finally she pushed herself upright, feeling her legs shake even as she stood. The woods were silent around her, save for the chirping of a bird off to one side and the faintest sound of the wind in the new leaves. At least no one had been witness to her pain.
I will never forget you, she thought. And wherever you go, I hope you will never forget me. Never forget that someone loved you...and always will.
For a long moment she stood there, feeling the flap of her muddy skirts against her legs. Then she lifted a hand toward the north, half in blessing, half in farewell. "Live, Ulfakh," she said. "Live. For me."
Then she turned and went back inside. There was much to do. The mountain paths would soon be clear, and then she would leave this place. It was time to rejoin the world. Time to go to her sister in Minas Tirith, and take part in life once more. She could only hope that Ulfakh, wherever he was, would greet the future with the same determination. Whatever he had done in the past, he deserved some measure of happiness.
After all, if an orc could come to know love, then there was some hope for this world after all...