If Sunshine hasn't had the newbies scared stiff before, the very sound of his name will make them shudder when this is over. The summit route always makes the giant Uruk cranky. Well, I'd be nervous, too, if my survival depended on the capacity of a much abused length of twisted hemp to bear a five hundred pound weight. Not that the big blacks would get nervous, oh no, they merely get… violent.
Today he's worse than usual, though. Must have gotten up on the wrong side of the pail, or something. Squad Four takes one look at him and vacates the cave, making sure to stay out of sight until the big black has had some breakfast, at least. It won't make him mellow, but hopefully a bit less likely to bite.
Alas, no such luck. He backhands Shaen for not getting the Threes out of his way. The man rolls with the punch and manages to stay on his feet; the less experienced Threes get thrown around like ninepins. He slams Throqu into a wall for not outfitting the Ones fast enough, and might have lost half of the latter at the first precipice, if not for Grey's insistence to check the rookies' gear regardless of the big black's scowl. He kicks Pughduf for… for being an Orc, probably, and gets a shrill-voiced piece of mind for it, but from a long, safe distance.
He's seen stalking out of the gate, at last, with a collective sigh of relief, setting a punishing pace of march with his long legs, and every one but the Ones, doomed to follow him, is glad to see him leave.
"Is he always this," all-encompassing hand wave, "grumpy in the morning?" Rádni asks, halfway down the mountain, at what he deems a wide enough distance from the piebald, pointed ears.
Aza laughs, making some off-colour remark about the big black not getting laid often enough, that leaves the boy a bit white-rimmed around the eyes, before skipping recklessly over the rocks to reach a position at the front of the group. The path downhill is obvious enough not to need an experienced guide for a while, and soon the leading position becomes more or less friendly contested for between Thaknor and the Phuma'Ar.
The two have fallen into a half bantering, half serious sort of competition, that reminds me an awful lot of the thing Khûral and Grey had going.
oo oo oo oo oo
We are walking down the last slope of the foothills, when Rádni looks ahead, says, "Oh, look, a…" in a voice filled with pleasant surprise, stops, and all of a sudden starts cursing violently.
A fantastic mix of his rolling back-water dialect, Westron, Black Speech, and… ah, make that half a dozen languages at their vilest, streams after him as he storms forward with terrible purpose in his bearing. He displays an impressive ear for foreign tongues, a lively imagination – and a similarly spectacular lack of common sense. Aza has her hands on the handles of an unknown number of sharp objects and the slight hesitation of her stance is merely indecision about which of them to use first. She probably understands as little of the tirade as I do, but enough to recognise the person, whose ancestry, mating preferences and favourite past-times are being so colourfully maligned, to be female. There aren't that many members of the fairer sex within hearing distance. Ignoring the furious Phuma-Ar, Rádni wrestles the Orcish angle-blade from his backpack without slowing his near-run and attacks a strip of golden grass stalks that rim the edge of a barren stretch of earth like an Elven row, that last row of corn left behind on the field during harvest, to assure, according to tradition – superstition – another good harvest next year. The razor-sharp blade makes short thrift of the tainted plants but Rádni isn't satisfied.
"Give me the hellfire!" he demands, yes, demands, from Thakmor, in complete reversal of his usual shy demeanour.
The big black's first – and half-automatic – reaction is to lift a clawed fist to teach the boy some manners, but then he looks at the yard-long blade with the wicked kink in it and the wild eyes behind it, and thinks better of it.
"Nah, you'll just fry yourself," he says, using the outstretched arm to push the boy aside. "You want to see them burn, uh? A nice bonfire from those weeds?" Only the Uruk-Hai can put that sort of gleeful rumble into words like burrrn and firrre. It sounds like a gigantic cat purring in malicious delight. It's usually enough to send any sane man scrambling for the hills.
Rádni, on the other hand, simply nods impatiently, and the Uruk obliges him, unstopping the skin just a little bit, to swing it around in a wide arc that seems to produce nothing for a moment, until the tiny droplets flung around ignite and result in a rain of fire. The golden stalks go up like the dead straw they always were, while the surrounding shrubs smoulder and char, unwilling to burn brightly unless hit directly by the hellfire. We all gather beside it – well to the windward – to make sure the blaze doesn't get out of hand. I already had a bush fire at my heels once and it wasn't pretty. Not a problem this time, though, the flames die down soon enough, the embers get stomped out and we're ready to march on.
However, Thak is still irritated, so, stepping close enough to take advantage of his extra height and literally looking down even on the boy's gangly six-foot-two frame, he asks casually, "where did you learn to swing a Dakgal like this?"
"A what?" Hmm, colour the boy unimpressed. Miffed, at having to crane back his neck, would be more like it. "It's a sort of scythe, you know. And I grew up on a farm. How do you think the harvest gets from the field to the granary, huh?"
I don't think the Uruk, make that any Uruk, has ever troubled himself with that question, but I see something that just might be a glimmer of respect, wash over the yellow eyes.
As quickly as it was ignited, the anger burns itself out. Grey waits until the young man's shoulders have dropped back into the customary position, to make sure his words are fully appreciated, then draws the boy aside for a short heart-to-heart. If I know the old chevalier, it comes under the heading of 'appropriate language in front of a member of the gentler sex', or something close enough. Rádni looks suitably chastised afterwards, but some embers continue to smoulder for the rest of the day. I doubt they will die down completely anytime soon. If ever.
They say, a sword is a sword is a sword, and even blades beaten into ploughshares still remember the taste of blood. True, as far as I know. But they usually don't tell you, it goes the other way, too. So Rádni, plough forged into a weapon, still retains a deep-rooted love for the soil and all that grows from it. He takes personal offence from the golden sheen, calling it a plague, a blight, a corruption of good and honest plants. So he throws himself into weeding out the afflicted vegetation with a vengeance, with a zeal, none of the rest of us can match or even understand.
He also wants to know all and everything about the weeds and occasional critter lining the path. Are they edible – for humans or anything else – or are they poisonous, when do they bloom, brood or whatever, where do they get the water from. Sometimes he gets an answer, "that one's poisonous", "burns like a nettle, only ten times worse", "don't try to smell the reddish shrub, it may look like heather but it'll make you see funny things", even the rare "that beastie tastes rather good". But mostly he gets blank stares. Who the hell is interested in things like that?
Though it is strangely refreshing, to see the Ashen Mountains – and by extension the Dead Marshes at their feet – as a place of wonder and not just the ugly backdrop for the next attack.
oo oo oo oo oo
With the freezing sleet and occasional rumble of rockslides from the summit route still firmly lodged in everybody's mind, the overcast damp of the lowlands feels rather comfortable, by comparison. Even the stench of the sickly green scum floating on the bog, we start to march alongside, takes a while to penetrate the general high spirits. The Orcs don't mind, anyway. One of them starts veering off the path but retracts his steps quickly enough when a seemingly solid patch of grass suddenly swallows his leg up to mid-thigh. Grey uses the occasion to treat everyone to a lecture about the assorted dangers of swamps in general and this one in particular that has Rádni plunge into thoughtful silence for a while. If I had to guess, I'd say sword-flags feature quite highly in his mind.
"Dagorlad," he pensively repeats the ancient Numerorian name Grey has thrown about casually. Then he lapses back into silence, but another two hundred paces later he starts humming.
Well, he does that. I don't think he realises it, most of the time, but he has a song on his lips more often than not, sometimes rather racy and/or gory marching songs that make me wonder if the air of innocence is just an act or if I should sit him down at a quiet moment, some time, and explain about half the vocabulary to him; but usually the sort of rhythmic chant sailors, harvesters and other folk use to time their work and space their breathing evenly. This one, on the other hand, I haven't heard this one for a long time. It's an old song, and I mean old, going back a few score generations. Still a catchy tune, though. Just a bit inopportune for the Land of Shadow.
"…The Iron-Crowned is getting closer, swings his hammer down on him, like a thunderstorm he crashes down on Gondor's proudest king…"(1) Thank gods, the young fool starts singing under his breath with the least offensive lines, but I get hold of his shoulder before he can dig himself any deeper.
"You're good in ancient history, I see," I tell the boy oh so quietly, "but do you happen to recall who's in charge here, now?"
He needs a moment to take my meaning, before he chokes on the next stanza and pales to the most greyish shade of ivory his tan will allow. He swallows heavily.
Too tangled with the sudden lump of lead in his throat to keep an eye on the path, he almost takes a header into the nearest quagmire, then jerks violently when a gaunt hand snakes out to steady him.
"No harm done," Sikhim's gravely voice almost makes me jump, for a walking skeleton the old Haradhrim can move awfully quiet. "Contrary to common belief the Burning One does not listen to every word you speak. Maybe he can hear everything," the bony fingers flex into something that might be a hex sign or a dismissive gesture, "but then, he doesn't bother. Unless you mean disrespect…?"
Rádni croaks a breathless "No, sir!" Sikhim inclines his head, taps the boy's shoulder and drifts back to the end of the column.
Whew, that's another disaster narrowly avoided.
oo oo oo oo oo
Twilight is about to start falling when Aza – momentarily ahead in the race for the leading position – jumps back with a shrieked curse, jabbing the ground before her with the longest blade in her possession. Something sinuous and glistening writhes under the point, making me run through my mental list of monsters for swamp-things with tentacles – and yes, there are such creatures! Everyone else, including Grey's hound, is thinking along the same lines, judging from the way the make ready for a fight, until one of the Orcs dives forward with what can be described only as a squeal of delight. Narrowly avoiding the Phuma'Ar's blade cutting him in halves at the sudden move, he starts grabbing at the ground, the other Orc merely half a heartbeat behind. When the first squirming thing goes crunch between the half-rotten, pointy teeth, I recognise the Orcish delicacy for what it is and almost start laughing. Shoving my blade, and then Rádni's, back into the sheath, I stomp onto a glassy head just emerging from a crack in the ground, stare down a scowling Orc with the promise of stomping on his fingers just as hard, and show my catch to the human newbies – and the Uruk lurking in the background.
"It's a cavern eel," I explain to the rapt audience, caught halfway between curiosity and disgust, "a subterranean version of the riverine fish."
Others have called it a ghost eel or glass eel, as it's see-through all the way but for the gigantic, palely luminous eyes. Every late summer around full moon – by whatever means they find out when that is, under three miles of solid mountain – they crawl out of the subterranean streams and make their way to the surface and into the swamp, presumably to spawn. I could point out the frothy mass of roe among the pale outlines of the inner organs visible through the colourless skin, if only the blasted fish would hold still for a moment. Four feet of slimy eel coil and whip around my arm, never mind the fact that half transparent vertebrae are visibly smashed and out of alignment from the full weight of yours truly plus a heavy travel pack. The ghostly buggers are even harder to kill than the usual kind. Translucent jaws packed with needle-sharp teeth snap in impotent fury, backed up by a second set further in, which makes me literally double-check that my fingertips are out of reach. Yep, I can see them, safely hooked into the gills, but not too far forward. Orcs absolutely love the taste of cavern eels, raw and wriggly, preferably. Like I expected he would, Thak pecks up at that, no doubt calculating how many of the fishes he can exhort from his smaller cousins. Personally, I think they taste pretty much as they look like, bland while see-through and approaching curdled milk when death turns the transparent blood into chalky white. Still, fresh, edible fish is a rare treat in the mountains, so I use the rock it crawled out under, to cut off the head and filet the fish. When I offer him a piece, Rádni takes it out of politeness, not because he really wants to eat it. The way he chews and chews on it, he's not entirely convinced of the taste. Aza takes hers because she would never back down from a dare, but it's obviously not her favourite dish, either. That's fine with me, leaves more for my impromptu dinner.
Everyone has dinner before reaching camp, today. Grey manages to kill, filet and eat his eel without getting slimed all over, his hound eats his whole. Sikhim wouldn't touch fish – of any colour, shape or form – with a ten-foot pole, if his life depended on it, but he takes a bite from his pouch, for company. The rest of the squad gather enough to gorge themselves properly, but as the eels will turn poisonous even to an Orc's lead-lined stomach as soon as the transparent skin has turned entirely opaque, a few handfuls will have to do.
That's handful in numbers, though, not just as much as one can grab in one go. For the Orcs that means about half their own weight in whole fishes, and while not even Orcs devour the eels in their entirety, it's… well, let's just say that Scarlet – as I have started to call the mole, despite Grey's disapproving glare, for the vivid red blotch covering half of his face, that might be a nasty scar, an even nastier skin condition or even a birthmark, who knows – won't be crawling through any narrow tunnels, for the rest of the day.
oo oo oo oo oo
The advantage of having ghost eel spawning season – apart from the free dinner – is that the sudden influx of fresh fish attracts all kinds of hungry local predators, which have no prejudice against feeding on golden-eyed beasts, either. Only strong flyers or real nasties – like fairy dust clouds – make it through. That greatly reduces our workload on that front.
The disadvantage of having ghost eel spawning season is that it attracts all kinds of hungry local predators, most of which aren't discriminate about any source of food. Including mountain guards that step too close. Plus, those intruders that make it through, will be the real nasties – flyers are, by common consent, a problem for the mid- and summit routes, not the lowlands, unless they insist to make themselves a problem for the latter. Nevertheless, seeing that the real nasties are rare and far between – I'm not trying to jinx myself here – and the locals aren't much of a problem if you know them well enough, I rather like this season.
Later in the evening I point out the dancing will-o'-the-wisps to Rádni, their pale phosphorescence shrouded in the rising mists to form writhing ghostly forms.
"I have heard about them. The dead from the Battle of the Last Alliance rise each night to fight the battle again and again," he declares in all earnest. "One must never follow the lights or else you're damned to fight with them in all eternity."
Uh, yes. And no. The creatures, I pointed at, are a sort of glowing jellyfish that can get airborne for a short time and uses this ability and its eerie glow to attract curious prey that is subsequently pulled under water, drowned and eaten. Then there are legions of dead bodies – the fallen of the Last Alliance or the odd wayward wanderer – buried in the Dead Marshes, some of them rather close to the surface – and remarkably well preserved, at times – complete with tons of submerged weapons that can still cut you to pieces if you fall into the wrong pond. I'm not ruling out the presence of vengeful spirits, either, but so far the things that tried to kill me have been, at least, as tangible as the Nine. Not that it matters, really. As long as the boy knows better than to follow the luring lights, he's free to do so for whatever reason he may choose to believe.
oo oo oo oo oo
Apart from a few suspicious ripples gliding away through the scum at our approach, the next day starts as quietly as anyone could hope for. Far away, beyond the marshes and even there at a point that will take us another day to come abreast, a forest has appeared where there was none last times we passed here, but even for moving trees the swamps make an almost insurmountable obstacle. Wood floats, yes, but only as a log, that is horizontal rather than upright. The trees start walking in – or whatever you may call the movement of an eighty-foot-plus trunk –and get stuck really soon as their weight drives them into the oozing ground beyond recovery. Only once, about three months ago, a couple of them somehow came up with a horizontal, paddling sort of movement that propelled them over the bogs and ponds in a torturously slow but steady pace – patience, I guess, is one of the strong suits of a tree – up to the solid ground at the foot of the Ashen Mountains. What they hadn't figured out, yet, was a way to get upright again at that point.
Khûral spent a very satisfying afternoon – and almost half of our allotment of hellfire – torching the beached trees with a glee that bordered on glutting a well-earned thirst of revenge. Whatever reason he might have had for a personal grudge against trees, moving or otherwise, it seems he wasn't the only one. Thakmor glares at the distant wood with a fire in his eyes that ought to make any other form of incendiary obsolete.
oo oo oo oo oo
Shortly after lunch we reach Ongad's Mere, one of the few substantial bodies of open water in this part of the marshes, and the only one to lap directly against the foothills. It's deep and steep enough to support only a thin line of reeds at its margins and sports no floating vegetation either. A dull, leaden grey, no matter what the weather. Not that a blue sky overhead is a usual sight around here, but when it does appear, the rest of the ponds have the common decency to reflect it. Not so Ongad's Mere. A dull, leaden grey, all the year through, too, it won't freeze, not even in the harshest frost of the winter.
The sullen lake is never a good place to linger, but doubly so during ghost eel spawning season. Grey makes sure everyone is aware of the implications. He nods approvingly when Thak pulls the big axe from his pack and takes point, keeping as far from the shore as possible.
I'm right behind him, sandwiched between the big black and a twitchy Phuma-Ar, not really my favourite place to be, but the path is tricky here, we don't want to end at a sunken, mud-filled and therefore nigh invisible gully. Even if the Uruk doesn't drown himself in such a trap, we really don't want to waste any time beside the mere. So I sing out directions when appropriate and once or twice I even snap at him to pick up the pace, which earns me a growl from the front and curious looks from behind. I don't care, as long as we gain the opposite end of the lake before dusk.
oo oo oo oo oo
We are past the mere, picking our way through a scattering of small, moss-covered boulders, the remains of an ancient rockslide that slid down right into the morass, when Scarlet, some ten yards behind me, suddenly gets torn off his feet and dragged towards the bog. Rádni, closest by, tries to reach for the shrieking Orc, manages to get a grip on a flailing arm – and gets dragged along, too. Grey and Sikhim race to help from the rear, the former shouting orders that are drowned in hysteric Black Speech by the time they reach me, and then Thakmor brings down his axe with a sickeningly wet thud.
The shrieking stops.
In typical Uruk-Hai-fashion, the big black has cut it very, very close. Literally. The rest of momentum brought the Orc's boots flush against the broad side of the blade. Half a heartbeat later and our mole would have lost several inches of length. He knows it, gulping heavily at the sight of the sticky axe and the towering figure above him, and Thak knows it, too, grinning down on the sprawled figure with the lazy, sharp-fanged grin of an Uruk out to play.
Grey breaks up the tableau with a few sharp words before the fun can get out of hand. The Orc recovers, angrily brushes off Rádni's hand and starts hacking at the severed tentacle wrapped around his ankles, thick as my thigh and covered with palm-sized suckers, each with a wicked claw in the middle. It's hard work, getting those things loose from heavy-duty boots – and would be messy as hell, had they touched bare skin. Oily, bluish blood trickles from the severed appendage. The stench is hideous. He's almost finished when another score of tentacles whip from the suddenly frothy scum at the water's edge and try to reach the prey that has been so rudely snatched from their embrace.
Thakmor swings his axe in flashing, dripping arcs, Grey yields his sword somewhat more economically but no less effectively, and the old Haradhrim cuts loose with his spear like I've never seen him move before. Rádni grabs Scarlet by the scruff of his neck and hauls him out of reach and I give him a hand. The other Orc – named Jade, for symmetry – ran away from the swamp at the first sign of trouble, choosing the better part of valour, if you are feeling very generous today – which I'm not – but at least he's now in the position to shower the creature with arrows from above and Aza, scowlingly, follows suit. The black-fletched shafts hiss rather closely past the big black's pointy ears, but keep a more prudent distance from the two Men, so I guess the Orc knows how to handle his weapon. Not that a climber is supposed to carry bow and arrows, but Grey did not even raise an eyebrow when Jade picked them up in addition to his usual gear, and Throqu didn't dare to argue the point.
"Don't aim to kill," Grey throws over his shoulder when a roaring mass becomes visible among the thrashed reeds, "just drive it off!"
That's the fun part of it, as a true denizen of the Dead Marshes, the many-armed monster is technically speaking on our side and must not be seriously harmed lest Mordor's natural defences lose part of their forces.
Reaching for Thak's pack, which the big black has shrugged off carelessly at the moment of the first attack, I prepare a couple of fireballs, handing the strings to Rádni to hurl them onto the centre mass of the creature. After the third ball, the skin of hellfire is torn from my sweaty grip by pale, clawed hands – and that's not an item I'm willing to play tug-o-war with – and then Scarlet pours some of the self-igniting oil straight onto the gravel at his feet. He's donned some sort of metal gauntlet, with long, curved claws standing out far beyond his fingertips. He scoops up a blazing stone with these claws and hurls it with deadly accuracy over the heads of our squad mates.
Slashed by blades, spitted with arrows and now pelted with fiery rocks, too, the monster finally decides to pick on easier prey and retreats back into its turbid realm.
oo oo oo oo oo
Rádni hits Scarlet on the back, in honest appreciation of the latter's part in driving off the monster, and almost gets a faceful of smoking iron claws for his enthusiasm, as Orcs aren't used to such displays of affection. Jade backs away with a wary look before the boy can even turn towards him, leaving the young man to stumble over his own tongue under Aza's not-quite-sated-shark grin. Sikhim says something to Thak that has the big black straighten up and add his own remark with a flash of grinning fangs. Grey has his hand on his hound's head, scratching the beast behind the ears, absentmindedly, before he gives each of us a curt nod. High praise, indeed.
Having seen the motley crew go through a real fight, now, I share his optimism.
Squad Two is back in business.
A/N:Sorry for the long delay, folks, but my laptop ate everything I had written for seven months, and RL did its damnedest to keep me busy without lifting a single finger in reconstruction work.
(1) Inspired by a catchy tune called „Time stands still on the Iron Hill", by Blind Guardians, to be found on "Night falls upon Middle Earth".