Author's Note: Some people have asked about Ulfakh's point of view in all this. I don't think "Absolution" is long enough to justify going back and forth between the two main characters, and it's really Lynneth's tale. But here is some of Ulfakh's story for those who might have been curious as to why he chose to save her.
The forest rose up and ate us.
At least that's how it felt. I don't know how I lived, or the ones who escaped along with me. Five of us, out of thousands. But Darhang would be dead by dawn, I knew. Black blood flowed from a gash in his neck and more from an arrow wound in his thigh. Still, Kordash, soft-hearted git that he was, dragged him along anyway, slowing us down, and Muldag was such a follower he would go along with anything Kordash said. I would have left Darhang to die where he lay, and knew he would have done the same to me. But I didn't waste my breath on arguments. All I could do was hope the bastard would die quickly before we had to drag him more than a few miles.
Bugger held on for most of the night, though, as we moved through the fells and rocky hills that bordered Isengard. Clouds hid the moon, so even I wasn't sure of our direction. All I knew was that we needed to get away, and fast. The strawheads were too busy with mopping up at the site of the battlefield to pay attention to a group of shadows that might or might not have been Uruk-hai.
Through it all I kept picking at the question, the way you might pick at a scab on a half-healed wound. How could it have happened? How could we have lost to such a puny force of those cursed horsemen? Magic had to have been involved -- some blasted trick to make the very trees come alive and mow us down. How I survived, when so many others had died, I didn't know and at this point didn't much care. They were dead, and I wasn't. Now I just had to make sure I kept on not being dead.
Finally Darhang breathed his last, in the cold gray hour before dawn, and Kordash dropped the body on the stony heights and kept following as I moved along, trying to put as many miles between us and the straw-headed bastards and their tame trees as possible. A watery sun rose to our left, and Kordash tried to give me some lip about heading deeper into whiteskin territory, but I shut him up with a blow and a comment about meeting up with the Red Eye's forces in the south. At least, that was the vague plan which had begun to form in my mind. The White Hand was carrion feed, as far as I could tell, and better to throw our lot in with someone who at least might have some use for us. How many miles lay between us and our goal, I didn't know. But at least the rough country continued to give us shelter from unfriendly eyes.
Two days passed. We didn't have anything on us except the kit all Uruk-hai were given: waterskin, set of knives, some strips of dried meat and hard biscuit that would break your teeth if you didn't soften it in some water first. Kordash had a flask of orc-draught with him, but the bastard was stingy with sharing it. I thought about cutting him and taking it, but I was managing well enough without it for now. But by that time we had entered woods once again -- although at least these trees seemed to be staying put, and I didn't get that feeling of eyes on the back of my neck the way I had whenever I entered Fangorn. This forest was younger and less dense; but more importantly, it was full of rabbits and squirrels, both of which made good eating. We did well enough, and kept moving.
Maybe we moved too fast. The next day Kordash stepped right into a bear trap some whiteskins had left in the woods, and it took the stupid sot's leg all the way up to the thigh. He was no use of anyone after that, so I paused and cut his throat quickly. It was a cleaner death than leaving him to fester of blood poisoning from his wounded leg. Muldag and I divided his kit, and when I took the flask of orc-draught I gave the whiny bastard a sharp look and bared my fangs a bit to prevent any argument. Of course he knew better. And after that we took off again.
These new woods might not have been haunted the way Fangorn was, but they turned out to be cursed for us. Only a day and a night after that, a group of whiteskins spotted us through the trees and began shooting. Always faster than Muldag, I slipped behind a tree, and the arrows embedded themselves in the trunk instead of in me. But the slow-footed bastard took three in the back and more in both his legs, and collapsed only a few yards away. Without looking back I bolted, using the trees and the underbrush as cover. Shouts and cursing came from behind me, but this group of men were too slow -- I soon lost them and kept at the loping, long-legged stride that allowed us Uruk-hai to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time.
I kept moving south as well as I could and didn't see another living soul, except some deer and the smaller animals of the forest that were my prey. I couldn't risk a fire and so ate them raw, their blood providing my only warmth. Days passed. I kept the count notched on my belt so I'd know how much time I'd spent alone in the forest.
The notches counted ten when the world changed.
The sky had been dark overhead for several days -- smoke from Mordor, I guessed. I had growled at my slow pace, at the unending forest -- somehow I knew time was passing and worried I'd get to the battlefield long after all the fun was over. Not that searching for plunder didn't have its amusements, but all Uruk-hai are bred and trained for war and get edgy when our only foes are some squirrels and rabbits. Then I felt it -- I don't know if the earth shifted under my feet, or a sudden strange wind blew through the forest, but somehow I knew it was over. Overhead the gray-brown clouds that had obscured the sky for the past few days broke apart, shredding into nothingness.
Mordor had fallen.
This seemed even more impossible than all my fellow Uruk-hai being wiped out by enchanted trees, but I could feel it in my bones, bones that went back to some long-ago ancestor first bred by the Red Eye. The power that had brought orcs into the world was gone.
I can't recall much of what happened after that. I think I sat down under a tree and watched the blue sky overhead as I wondered whether Darhang, Kordash, and Muldag weren't the lucky ones. Was I the only Uruk-hai -- hell, the only orc -- left in Middle Earth? I guessed it was only a matter of time before the whiteskins caught up with me and finished the job they'd started with Muldag.
But somehow they didn't. I began an aimless wandering, eating enough to stay alive, always moving. This forest wasn't my enemy any longer -- it was the only shelter, the only home I knew. The rough living didn't bother me much; Uruk-hai were trained to live off the land. Even at Isengard my only "comforts" had been a rock slab and a thin blanket to sleep on. At least here I didn't have anyone giving me orders.
Then, one day, I saw her.
Paths wound their way through the forest; here and there were glades where men had built small cottages. I'd avoided such places -- the chances of being seen were too high, but either I hadn't been paying attention to where I was going, or some other force was guiding me there. I don't know. All I do know is that I saw the narrow path curving through the woods and caught a flash of blue from her cloak. I hid myself behind a tree, and she saw nothing, but I was able to watch from my hiding place as she moved purposefully toward the southwest, where I knew a small village was located.
She'd thrown back the hood to her cloak, and I saw her profile as it was suddenly lit by a beam of sun where it broke through the trees. She was beautiful.
And what does an Uruk-hai know of beauty? Not much, I guess, but although many of us probably wouldn't want to admit it, what made us different from other orcs -- made us taller and straighter, able to stand the light and heat of the sun -- was that somehow Saruman had mingled the blood of orcs and men. The ground beneath Isengard birthed us, but I had seen the terrified yellow-haired women brought into the fortress, although they never came back out again. Saruman was using them for breeding, that was clear enough. Somewhere in my blood was mixed the blood of the strawheads.
Some of the captains cracked lewd jokes about the uses made of these captives, but as a lowly foot soldier I'd never been given my chance at one of them. Still, I'd seen animals mating and could guess at what happened between the captured women and the higher-ranking Uruk-hai. No one cared whether any of them were comely or not, but sometimes I would catch a glimpse of one of the women and find something pleasing about her shape or her face. I'd never asked any of my fellow soldiers if they felt the same way; I knew a casually brutal ribbing would have been the result.
But none of the women I had seen at Isengard were anything like the one I spied that morning on the forest path. For one thing, her hair was dark -- not black like mine, but a deep brown that caught flickers of copper in the sunlight. Her skin was pale and smooth. From that distance I couldn't see the color of her eyes and suddenly wanted to come closer so I could know for sure. But I also knew I didn't dare do anything so foolish.
Instead, I kept my post behind the tree, watching until she disappeared around a curve in the path. Then, when I knew she was gone, I turned and followed the path in the direction from which she'd come.
The cottage wasn't big, but it seemed sturdy enough -- half-timbered with a thatched roof, the kind of place that would burn prettily if a raiding party had ever come through here. Which, of course, it hadn't. A set of real glass windows looked out on a small front garden where flowers had just begun to bloom. Behind the house was a vegetable garden, a small barn, and a pen filled with sheep. Just the thought of some fresh mutton was enough to make my mouth water, but I somehow couldn't make myself take one of her sheep. The woods provided food enough, even though by then I was heartily sick of rabbit.
I wondered if she lived here alone; the place looked deserted. When I tried the front door, it wasn't locked. So I swung it open and peered inside. I saw a decent-sized front room, with a wooden plank floor covered by some sort of bright-colored rug. Off to one side I saw a complicated piece of machinery that I didn't recognize; strands of colored yarn were stretched tight across it, and I figured it must be a piece of equipment to make fabric. That would also explain all the sheep. To the other side was an eating area, and beyond that were two low arched doorways, one of which seemed to go to the kitchen, and one to a hallway.
Everything was neat and clean -- I wanted to go inside but knew my feet would leave tracks that she'd notice right away. Instead, I shut the front door and sidled around to the back of the house. Another pair of windows looked out on the vegetable garden, and I went up to one and looked in. Obviously it was her bedchamber; I could see a large bed covered with some sort of embroidered fabric, and across from that was a large carved piece of furniture, probably for holding clothes. There were two bolsters on the bed, which made it seem as if she shared the house with someone, but I saw no evidence of anyone else in the house or elsewhere on the property.
By then I knew I'd already spent too much time there. I didn't know when she would be coming back, and I didn't want her to catch me sneaking around the place. So I disappeared back into the woods and made my way along the path to the place where I had first seen her. The large oak had sheltered me once and would serve again.
Time passed, and eventually she came back, carrying a heavy basket in one hand. In the other was clenched a whitish...something. It took me a moment or so of squinting at it to realize it was a piece of paper. You saw it every once in a while at Isengard; the bosses like to put up lists of rules in the barracks, but since none of us could read it was a stupid exercise. But at least I knew that people would put down words of some sort on paper so other people could read them.
Whatever was written on the paper seemed to have upset her; her face looked almost as pale as the letter she held, and I thought the flickering sunbeams that came down between the trees caught a glitter of moisture in her eyes. Orcs can't weep, but I'd seen men and women do it enough in the straw-head villages we'd raided to know that humans leak tears when they're distressed about something. Then she bit her lip and shook her head, and it suddenly hit me -- a wave of desire so strong it almost made me dizzy. For a second I almost broke from my hiding place and went to take her then and there, right on the forest path. But somehow I forced my body to hold itself still, even though I could feel myself throbbing with the will to force myself into her, to feel her move beneath me. If I took her as I wanted, I knew I would be hunted down and killed.
Agonizing seconds dragged on as I dug my heavy nails into the bark of the tree that hid me. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight of her. And when I opened them, she was gone, and the moment had passed.
But I knew from then on I was lost...