Long time, no see. Well, my beta ran off with the next two chapters and with Real-life throwing a tantrum and other stories demanding my attention, I wasn't exactly in hot pursuit. The world moved on, continental drift buried the files .…
Then, recently, I was reminded that there are still people out there reading this story. Thanks, I needed that. So I did some excavation work, blew off the dust and if you're still interested, here we go again. Unbetaed, though, so you have been warned.
Grey and Sikhim submerge themselves in a conversation in a language nobody else understands. They will shepherd the squad from the rear, so it's up to me to lead the way.
The Uruk follows close at my heels, a steady swish of leather on leather with no footsteps to carry it. Just half a step short of breathing down my neck. Itching to take over the lead – if only he knew the way.
It's not easy to decide which of the handful of marginally passable spurs is the right one. Which of the numerous boulders makes a landmark. Sometimes the best method is to count your steps. Eleven since the last fork, taking the path next to the cliff. Careful now.
Promptly the big black is breathing down my neck. I am not too happy with that. I'm not too keen on leading, either; the front man usually gets the brunt of everything that comes our way. Hopefully, with a target so much bigger right behind me, they will go for that, mainly. Twenty-six, twenty-seven. Almost there.
A hiss like a live coal hitting water. A very angry coal – and it brought friends. The Uruk is lucky to lose merely the tip of an ear and a handful of stringy hairs when a score of greedy jaws shoot from the rock face on skinny necks. Pu-sha-skoirs. Winged-Maws. Fellbeasties. Perfect stock for breeding a grisly airborne steed – if you're a Ringwraith with a couple of millennia on your hands and nothing better to do.
If you know where the colony is, you simply stay out of reach, and they'll do nothing but hiss and spit. They prefer dead meat to those who might fight back – but if opportunity marches straight into their jaws .… Unlike their giant cousins, fellbeasties can't bite you in halves, but they can take off a hand, a foot or half of your face, whatever they get hold of. And perched at the entrances of their rocky nests, necks writhing snakelike and wings spread for full display, they look more than ready to attack.
Safe at the spot where he jumped to, the big black eyes them suspiciously. Then he seems to see through the bluff and starts laughing. Trust the Uruk-hai to see the funny point in almost getting your face torn off. As long as someone else might share the same fate, that is. I've marched on without missing a step and am already past the furious flock, but the rest of the newbies stopped before it. Well before it.
Not stupid. Lesson One learned: Don't approach an unknown danger unless there's no other way.
"Keep an arm's length distance to the cliff and you are out of harm's way," Grey advises quietly.
Sunshine might actually have arms that long, but our new squad members go for the generous side. They keep as much distance as the gravel slope would allow.
From now on, the Uruk takes great care to step exactly where I stepped – and to let me have some breathing space.
Lesson Two learned: Harassing the leader is bad for your health.
oo oo oo oo oo
By midday we have reached travel height, and for once the Ashen Mountains seem benevolently inclined. The clouds restrict themselves to veiling the highest peaks, so you actually see the landscape ahead and below. The swamps at the foot of the mountains glisten in the sun, the faraway glare being bright enough for the Orcs to cringe away from it. The rest of the squad enjoys the sight during lunch break. If we are really lucky – and considering last week we are due for some good fortune – the fine weather might keep for a few days before turning into hail and icy wind at a moment's notice.
The summit route mainly consists of tiptoeing over narrow ridges and scrambling over the scree skirting higher peaks. It's exhausting and dangerous footing, but, interestingly, it isn't much more work for the climbers than the midroute, since many of the numerous gorges and gullies cutting through the path start somewhere downhill. Or, if they don't, they aren't as wide up here.
Not all of them, though. Shortly after lunch we reach a ravine, half filled with old ice. Some sixty feet deep and maybe twenty-five wide.
I set up a rope, fastening it with a knot that is easy to untie, yet not likely to get loose under strain.
"Take the rope with you, when you get down," I tell my 'colleague', before climbing down. Old Mountain Guard rule, whoever fixed the rope climbs first.
Down in the ravine the air is icy. The ground is treacherous. Solid ice as a base covered by a crust of snow that has melted and refrozen into bizarre shapes. The Uruk hits the ground behind me and promptly breaks through the crust. As long as he doesn't slip, that might be better footing than the precarious dance I do on top of the jagged deposits.
I safely reach the other wall and scan it for the best way up. A heavy crunch and a deep-throated curse in Black Speech tell me that the big black did slip on the ice. The frozen bristles are sharp enough to draw black blood from his hands. At least, the very fact that he's too heavy for the snow crust ensures that he won't slide downhill. Where we cross the ground is almost even, but a few steps further on, the steep slope gives you a free ride down, with no way to stop until you hit the rocks some five hundred yards below.
I don't yet have the toughened fingertips all long-time climbers have, so my hands are raw and bleeding by the time I've scaled the rugged cliff. But once I've secured the rope for the rest of the squad to follow, I feel elated. My first real task as a climber – and it worked smoothly. The feeling holds until I see the other climber on the opposite brink, unsheathing his blade to cut the rope loose.
"Don't touch the rope, idiot!" I roar. He'll cut it in halves and good ropes are hard to come by. We'll need the full length further on.
The Orc jumps back, startled, then reaches again for the rope with a malicious grin on his ugly face. So much for having no trouble with the Orcs. Let's try another track.
"You touch that rope, maggot," I shout, trying to match the chilling disdain Grey is so good at, "and you won't get any further than this gully. The bottom end of it, to be precise."
As I hoped, the Orc is distracted enough to look in the direction I indicate, and therefore can't dodge the stone coming his way. He very nearly chokes as it smashes into his throat. At this distance, I'm pretty good.
And then the rope at his feet starts to move on its own accord, because Grey, who knows this kind of knot, gave the dangling ends the right tug. And suddenly the Orc feels uncomfortably alone on his side of the canyon.
The Uruk is squatting somewhere beside me, grinning in anticipation of some kind of violence. The Phuma-Ar has just scaled the rope and looks back with a similar expression. The young man is on the way up, and definitely not siding with the Orc, while down in the gorge, Sikhim and Grey are waiting for him. Even if Orcs were sociable creatures, the second one wouldn't stand up for him against such odds.
"Take the rope with you, once you get down," I advise with a smile.
Grey heaving up his hound takes care of the rope on this side. The other climber takes his time at the bottom, but as the rest of us obviously won't leave without him, he finally scales the wall. The top part of the cliff is the worst climb, so I know the Orc is rather glad to have those claws to dig into some cranny – and still is hard put to keep a hold when I step onto the edge, blocking the way to the safety of the even ground.
"A hundred feet are a long way down," I tell him, in the tone for admonishing a little child – a sure bet to get under the skin of a creature probably a few hundred years old.
"A hundred feet, that's about the length of our ropes. And if they get shorter, somehow, there'll be a problem. Because it's our job to get the squad down. And I'm not sure how you feel about helping him down a hundred feet without a rope," I say, waving towards three hundred pounds of fanged muscle, "but I know how he feels about lending a hand to you."
Since we all know that said hand would send the Orc down pretty fast, he swears up and down to take care of the ropes from this time forth. We'll see how long that lasts.
At the next precipice I let the Orc go down first, and the Uruk kindly suggests that he'd better stick to the rope and that the other Orc is coming second. Even from the top of the cliff, the argument they have when they reach the bottom, is clearly audible.
There's no way how the big black would not bully the Orcs whenever he gets the chance, but evidently the mole thinks that the other Orc is fishing for trouble. Trouble hitting both of them. By the time the rest of the squad has reached the lower ground, they are in a full snarling contest.
"A pair of humans is called a couple," I start.
"A pair of oxen is a team," one of the newbies chimes in.
"A pair of Orcs is a quarrel," a chorus ends. On cue, the snarling redirects its focus from themselves to us, only to rouse general laughter.
The rest of the day is quite uneventful.
oo oo oo oo oo
The next morning finds us in a fog so thick that you can't see ten steps in front of you. The summit clouds have descended to our level.
Grey and his dog take over the lead, to have at least some minimum warning if there's anything amiss on the way.
I let the Uruk have the second place and trail him for a change. The young rootbreaker walks behind me, his name is Rádni, I found out last evening. The Phuma-Ar is Aza, with a sibilant hiss between the vowels. The Uruk's name sounds like Thakmor – snakish hiss, harsh kh at the very back of the throat – either Khûral was a good teacher or this is a surprisingly easy-to-pronounce Black Speech name; and the Orcs are Maukh'l and Nûrzm, or something like that.
On one of the rare occasions where the path is broad enough to walk side by side, Rádni hastens to join me.
"The Haradrim," he starts, to break off shyly.
"Sikhim," I supply.
He nods, relieved. "He has, he's … is that a Giant Eagle claw, his dagger sheath, I mean?"
The boy has eyes and knows how to use them, I have to grant him that. "Yes, it is."
He digests that in silence.
"He killed a Giant Eagle," half question, half statement.
"Squad Four did," I explain. "They all wear a claw each."
Rádni nods again.
"How?" he asks curiously.
"Luck, Squad Four ferocity, more bows and arrows than the regulations would expect them to carry, good teamwork – take your pick. From what I know, the trick is to find a refuge the Eagle can't pluck you off, shoot fast enough to actually hit it, hit the right spot, and – once you got it down – go in fiercely enough to keep it down." To say the least, the killing of the Giant Eagle was a major point for Squad Four in gaining their sky-high reputation.
"Doesn't sound too complicated," the young man jokes.
"No, it doesn't. Has been done before, too." But never by a team of seven.
He knows it. Probably hunted birds of prey back home, to keep them off the poultry, so he can appreciate the difficulties. His eyes glow with admiration.
"Who got the eighth claw?" he asks as an afterthought.
Smart, really smart, that boy.
"Grey," I say. "The Fours found two of his arrows in the Eagle's guts, so they decided the last claw was his."
As they decided to keep the rest of them, or so the rumour says. Old Fiery got the Eagle skin, including the head and beak – which now adorns the Black Gate – but by then, the Eagle's feet were gone.
Personally, I call that rubbish, not even Squad Four messes with the Dark One and gets away with it, but it certainly enriches the legend.
oo oo oo oo oo
Shortly after noon the mole gets its first real job, a freshly dug hole, just big enough to squeeze in. To end up soaking wet and miserably cold.
At this height, not so far away from the eternal snow of the peaks, there's often ice in the ground, hidden by a thin layer of crumbled minerals. The creature – some kind of badger – hit such an ice sheet, but as the golden light makes them stop at nothing, it gnawed, fought and burrowed its way through. Only to find a pocket of meltwater at the base. The wretched thing drowned in the icy pool and the Orc almost does the same.
Thakmor offers a sip of hellfire to warm him up and gets a Look from Grey that shuts him up for the rest of the day.
With dusk falling, we reach a gap in the clouds and get some last sun-rays. The Orcs quickly cover their eyes and the mole, arm thrown protectively over his face, grumbles, "Now it really can't get any worse."
Which we will remember as the exact moment when he jinxed us.
oo oo oo oo oo
Soon after midnight, the Ashen Mountains decide to enlighten us how to maintain extensive swamps at the base of seemingly arid mountains: Start high with sleet and a harsh wind, hit the ground hard and fast, and head for the nearest chasm, never to see daylight again until the foothills are well behind you. All the midroute will get is a distant rumble and black clouds overhead, and probably a grateful 'better them than us' comment from the experienced squad members.
Rádni trudges through the freezing, almost horizontal rain hunched up and in silence. The Orcs grumble, Aza and the Uruk almost start a fight and Grey and Sikhim almost let them have one. I take a fall into the rope that smashes me against the rock face with enough force to make me revaluate dark holes. Anything has to be better than scrambling over wet rocks, slick with an icing of real ice. Anything.
oo oo oo oo oo
The first warning is the crunch of stepping on a dead spider.
The second is the fact that the mountainside ahead is glowing in the gloom. The Ashen Mountains are volcanic by nature, but the nearest active firespitter is Old Fiery's favourite forge, a good hundred miles due west.
The last one is a whiff of summer air, riding the icy wind.
I give Rádni a shove to get him moving and elbow Aza in the ribs as I pass her in a run. The rest I leave to Grey and Sikhim.
I remember a spot where we might be safe, if we get there in time. Wind and rain seem to get even worse when I near the cliff; plus, there's a virtual torrent running down the slope. It's stumble, slip and scramble on.
Finally, I reach the sheer rock. No way to climb it against the cascade tumbling down, so I break out the grappling hooks. The first throw is a miss, the second also, but just when panic starts to take over, the rope catches somewhere. It resists a frantic tug and then I'm already halfway up the cliff.
There's an overhang, with a narrow horizontal rift below, and that's where we are heading. A good deal of the mountain above us slopes down to this particular outcrop, so there's a lot of rain funnelled over this cliff, a solid curtain of water all around the little cave. That should keep it off.
The Orcs race up the rope before I can check if it's really secure. But from their point of view, it's certainly worth the risk. The rest isn't far behind.
With everyone wedged between the dripping rocks somehow, breath gets a chance to catch up.
"It was so beautiful," Aza says, looking dazed. And absolutely uncharacteristically entranced.
Well, she's unquestionably right. Imagine the most magnificent garden you've ever seen in a dream – this is ten times better. A stretch of gorgeous flowers, swaying gently under what seems to be a bank of dawn-kissed mist. A soft breeze drives the haze slightly ahead. Most beautiful, indeed.
Alluring would be another word, captivating, enthralling. I've seen grown men, hardened veterans, stand mesmerised until it was too late, while the swirling golden cloud reached out for them.
There's no Orcish word for it. Which is expressive in itself, as the Orcs like to call everything names. Foul names. But this is something so unnameable for them, that, if they absolutely have to speak about it, they use human terms.
Fairy dust, for example. The most beautiful way to die, others call it. Once it caught you, if you're human, you choke on a mixture of finely ground soil and tiny seeds. Instant bouquet on your grave, too, you can expect the loveliest blooms imaginable to spring up from the still warm body. But in principle, it's just a thick cloud of dust, and if you're really lucky and stumble out of it by accident, you'll cough up golden mud for an hour or so, and taste the earthy tang on your tongue for a few days. Maybe you'll develop an understanding for the Orcish hate of all things beautiful, but there is a chance to survive it.
No such luck for the Orcs. Fairy dust makes their skin melt away, seedlings taking hold in the still writhing flesh, and what you get is a roughly man-shaped flowerbed crawling around for a few minutes, screeching in a slowly strangled voice. I sure as hell don't like Orcs, but that's a way to go I wouldn't wish even on them.
Uruks fare in-between. They're harder to choke than a human, so they get more time to find a way out, but the stuff attacks their hides, too, if more slowly, so they better keep away as far as possible.
Which tends to be more difficult than it sounds. Fairy dust floats on a constant warm breeze, laden with the sweet, intoxicating fragrances of its trail of blossoms. A breeze with a mind of its own.
There are good reasons why the Mordor Mountains aren't famous for horticulture. Why the native plant-life consists only of lichens, moss and a few lowly shrubs – and they have to fight mean and dirty to stay alive. The soil is meagre and acidic and water's scarce. Not speaking of all the hungry critters with their very own definition of 'edible'.
Maybe that's why fairy dust clouds always head for the nearest life-form. Nutrients and moisture already assembled and one greedy maw less to worry about.
Maybe they are just bent on wholesale destruction. They kill everything in their path, smothering weeds and animals alike under a blanket of gaudy splendour. And the more of a Mordor breed the victim is, the nastier the result.
Furthermore, while escaping the golden cloud is hard, fighting it is nearly impossible. Dust is impervious to blades. Fire can't hurt it, too, as the flames won't catch. The outermost seeds may smoulder for a moment but the next ones are too far off to keep the spark going, so the rest of the cloud ignores the torch and goes for the yielder.
On the plus side, if the Lady can play with the local weather, the Dark One, on his own territory, definitely can, too.
What feels like the worst spell of malevolent meteorology in months, is actually the Land of Shadow defending itself. Part of the hypnotic swirling that makes the golden clouds so fascinating is simply the visible outcome of clashing air-currents, while the beating rain keeps the cloud confined to a small space, washing away the settled dust and all but the most deeply rooted plants.
Elvish soil and Elvish magic might cause the embedded seeds to grow anywhere and at unnatural speed, but they can't sustain them for long. Once the golden cloud has moved on, the hostile ground takes over and the garish flowers dwindle and die almost as fast as they sprang from the ground. They crumble into a fine silvery powder, quickly turning into grey slush. If they have the time to produce their own seeds, these too are washed away, to die somewhere deep down between the rocks in a lightless cavern.
The golden cloud, glimmering vaguely through the falling water surrounding us, wafted tentatively in our direction, which caused the Orcs to shrink even further into the crevice, but then it stopped. It seems undecided whether to resume its slow uphill crawl or to defy the thundering cataract in an attempt to reach plenty of fresh meat. In a way that's good – the longer it stays at a certain point, the more of its substance is spent without doing further damage and the more the mountains can concentrate their fury on it.
On the other hand, said fury is focused on our location and a sudden onslaught of frost can kill a warm-blooded creature just as dead as a delicate flower. Not to mention the fact that playing the bait always includes the risk of the bait being taken.
On cue, the golden menace shifts nearer. It's getting close enough to discern the rainbow flicker of the flowers underneath, constantly changing as the scree is washed out beneath them. It pays a high prize to claw its way against the flood and the wind funnelled along the cliff, but apparently seven big warm bodies seem worth the expense. Once it breaks through the waterfall, the overhang will provide the same shelter from wind and rain for the fairy dust as it does for us, leaving nowhere to run.
The bottom end of the cascade turns into yellow froth. If a third of the fine powder makes it through the heavy curtain of water, that'll be quite a feat – and more than enough to kill us. Already a small pool of golden light coalesces in the gloom beneath us.
One of the Orcs makes for a headlong plunge down the cliff.
Grey holds him back. "Wait," he says, "wait for the last possible moment."
With the dust cloud below growing more substantial by the minute, that won't be far from now.
Sikhim murmurs something to the Uruk beside him, and the big black suddenly looks a good deal more cheerful.
The downdraft of the falling water finally overcome, the golden cloud starts rising – and something considerably darker than rain splashes the cliff it started to scale.
There is the familiar rush of hot air, accompanied by an ominous crackle.
Touching near-freezing rock with a naked flame is a trick they use in mining to loosen the ore. You usually avoid sitting on that particular slab at that time, though, but an avalanche or solid rockslide is the only known way to stop a fairy dust cloud before it runs out on its own.
Every droplet of burning hellfire has become the centre of a spider web of cracks racing over the rock, spreading like ripples in a pond, until, with an almost human groan, the ledge we crouch on is suddenly three inches shorter. The whole front face of the cliff drops about a foot, seemingly in one piece, and then the rock folds like a sheet, to bury the golden cloud under tons of stone.
Icy water gushes over the mound, channelled by slabs of rock reaching into the waterfall, to form a quickly rising pool. Steam and floating clumps of fire are the only marks of anything untoward about it.
Thakmor allows himself a triumphant grin.
oo oo oo oo oo
A glowing dome, forming momentary in the churning puddle, is the only warning before a golden pillar shoots up from the rubble, the whole rest of the fairy dust cloud concentrated into one solid beam of angry, beautiful death. It's thirty feet high and rising before even the water it shoved aside has splashed back from the surrounding rocks.
oo oo oo oo oo
Funny, how things change when you grind them down finely enough. A solid bar of iron may be molten in the fire, but never burned; yet blow a handful of fine iron filings through a torch and you'll get a fireball. Fairy dust, on the other hand .…
Being dripping, soaking wet to the skin has its advantages, too. Otherwise, we would be toast.
Burning oil ricocheted in the miniature surf beneath us, hit the bottom end of the pillar and turned it into so much glowing tinder. The upward surge fanned the embers and sucked them right into the heart of the writhing golden knot forming in front of us.
The resulting explosion blows off the screen of water in a jet of steam and spray. Small to sizeable stone shards drop from the overhang. But we are lucky, most of the roof holds. What parts of the cloud the fireball didn't consume, it shattered to the four winds, and the angry elements take care of the rest.
We wait a while before climbing down, just to be sure, but nothing lightens the grey and murky slopes, anymore.
At the foot of the cliff, Aza stoops to pick up a half-crushed blossom, inhales the sweet scent and watches the delicate petals curl up and disintegrate.
"So beautiful," she says wistfully. But there is an ironic undertone in her voice, and when she looks up, the telltale Phuma-Ar sneer is firmly back in place.
When the Uruk starts laughing, we all fall in heartily. It's mainly relief to be alive, but it's the first concerted action as a group, too.
Maybe we'll make a squad, some day.