Aragorn hunched back out of sight in the cool crevice made by the tall rocks that surrounded him. He closed his eyes, for a sudden wave of dizziness threatened to overcome him. He put his head back sought to revive his flagging spirits for there was not one part of his body that did not hurt. His back was red crisscross tracks of flaring pain. His wrists and ankles were raw seeping flames of pain. The very bones of his legs and arms ached from being kept taut for too many weeks. Even the muscles of his jaw pulsed with pain after being forced open too wide for too long. He shifted a little and his hair which had grown over long, snaked over his bare shoulders to brush his chest. He winced for parts of his chest had grown sensitive to the slightest touch. Yet these hurts did not worry him overmuch, he would heal in time. The most important fact was that he was free, at least for now. But he knew that out there somewhere in the hot, dry plains they hunted him.
Hours passed and as the day waned, Aragorn felt his knotted muscles relax. Bit by bit he uncoiled till at day's end he was asleep, leaning against the warm rocks. But the heat soon leached out of those rocks and midway through the dark passes of the night the young ranger awoke chilled. The cold had got right under his skin to find the very marrow of his bones. He shook uncontrollably, yet he made no sound for he knew that the night belonged to the orcs. They lived for the night when the harsh sun could not burn their grey skin and make their red eyes smart. He got to his knees slowly peeking around the rock's edge cautiously. There would be patrols nearby, not looking for him in particular just keeping watch. Hunched over he darted like some sort of bronzed lizard from rock fall to rock fall all the while taking himself nearer to where he knew he must encounter a night patrol yet taking the risk for there also were the homes of the slaves of Nurn. He knew that less dominant orcs were sent on far flung patrols, the smarter and more aggressive ones stayed closer to their dens, where food, fire and fun were more readily available.
A sudden angry bark caused him to drop flat on his belly and lie still, his head flat against the earthen floor. This patrol was suddenly uncomfortably near. As he controlled his breathing his belly ached. The last bit of bread and sip of mead that the orc had grudgingly fed him had been just a little over three risings of the sun. Food and drink he would need soon if he were to survive this ordeal. That is why he had following the setting sun every even-tide for the slave huts were all piled together at the western end of the vale. He was close now, for he could smell the cooking fires of the evening and the stench of the inevitable piles of refuse strewn everywhere. If only this patrol would move on. He listened to their curses and mumbling and the squeal of the lesser orcs as the patrol leader shared his frustration among the rank and file. But slowly, very slowly they moved away heading almost south.
Pushing himself to a sitting position Aragorn sighed as his rumbling belly made him hunch over. Throwing caution away he began a tired loping run through the maze of rock and stone. The wind seemed to buffet him as he moved, pushing him against the rough edges of the monoliths that dotted the landscape. But Aragorn was following a particular scent. The heady scent of wild boar slowly cooking in its own juices was making his mouth water. He must have it. Abruptly he was on the plains; shock at his careless caused him to pause before he suddenly dropped to the ground. Slightly below and ahead of him was spread the slave village of Nurn.
Dilapidated huts leaned drunkenly against each other. Rubbish heaps and cooking fires stood side by side. Aragorn could smell the sweat of misery and hopelessness that permeated the place. No one roamed about for it was not permitted. But Aragorn could see the silhouettes of many a slave within their homes. Scenting the air Aragorn eyes followed the smell to the nearest cooking fire. As he had thought a haunch of boar hung over a low wood fire. His mouth went dry as he watched. There was no one close by.
This hut was a bit bigger and stood a little apart from the others. He could not see though the walls for they were not made of cloth as were its neighbours but of thin wood. Caution kept him pinned to the ground but there was no movement from the crude hut. It was not long before hunger pushed him to his knees. Crawling on hands and knees he inched closer to the fire.
Welcome heat burned his fingers as he reached out shaking fingers to the roasting meat. Soft succulent morsels pinched from the bones were crammed into his open mouth. Trying not to moan too loudly in absolute pleasure the young ranger ate tiny pieces of the greasy meat greedily heedless of his burning tongue and lips. So focused was he that he did not hear the door of the hut as it was opened slowly. So weary was he that he did not see the shadow of the man who came out of the shack. So tired was he that it was only when the man clamped a huge hand upon his naked shoulder that he reacted. Throwing himself backward Aragorn had a fleeting picture of a massive man when a huge fist connected solidly to his jaw.
The young man went slack under his hands almost instantly. Bard picked up the boy with hardly any effort, turning him this way and that he examined the old and new wounds scattered about his body. His sharp eyes did not miss the thinness of his arms, legs and torso or the raw skin across his chest and along his groin. Pushing his long hair away from his face Bard held him closer to the fire to better see his face.
"Hmmmmmmm," he mused. "So you are what all the excitement was about." There had been one too many orc raids the last two days now. They had come into his place and tossed it claiming they were looking for a runaway. Disgruntled Bard had resented their intrusion, as the only blacksmith in two slave quarters he was usually treated with much more respect. But he knew when to hold his peace and remained silent as the orcs smashed and kicked at his belongings.
"Well youngling you have caused me some grief," Bard rumbled. Tossing the young man like a sack of cloth upon his back Bard retreated into his home.
Heat along his skin, intense heat as though he was being slowly cooked. The horror of the thought galvanized him into wakefulness and his eyes flew open. He sat up before he should have and everything swum before his eyes. It seemed that there were flames everywhere and a horrible ringing filled the air. Instinctively Aragorn covered his head and pushed away from the heat. A deep rumble of laughter greeted his reaction.
"Worry not young one, had I wished you harm you would not have awakened." The voice came from a huge form that stood in the midst of the flames. Aragorn squinted at the creature. It began to move toward him. Instinctively Aragorn's scrabbled around in the dirt for a weapon of any kind but his fingers encountered none.
"Peace child you will come to no harm here." Bard said as the young man felt around feverishly for a weapon.
Reaching out he grasped him by the shoulders and brought him to his feet.
Aragorn staggered as the big man let go of him.
Bard roughly pushed some clothing in his arms. "Put these on."
The cloth was coarse and stank of sweat and earth but Aragorn was tired of his nakedness and donned them gladly. Next the giant man pushed a bowl of cooled meat into his hands.
"Eat ," he commanded.
Aragorn squatted on the ground and ate ravenously, his eyes following the movements of the blacksmith. The big man returned to the forge. Now Aragorn could see clearly that the man was making farming implements. The wooden handles stood against the walls of the forge whilst the iron heads were being heated and pounded into shape.
He could feel his hunger abating as he ate but it would take a lot more to sate the young ranger. Soon enough the meal was finished.
"My thanks," Aragorn said to the big man, his voice somewhat rusty.
Bard nodded at him. "Now lad let's make you useful."
Aragorn spent the next three days learning how to gauge the temperature of various metals. He learnt what the different mallets and hammers were used for. He learnt how and when to bend the metal to make the strongest implements.
On the fourth day the orcs returned.
Aragorn began to tremble as shouts of the awful beasts filled the air. His skin began to itch with memory of their cruelty.
"Peace child, you are safe." Bard rumbled at him as Aragorn dropped a mallet for the third time.
So Aragorn continued to pound at the shovel that he was making, but his mind was filled with wild thoughts of escape. Soon enough the orcs approached.
The orc leader stopped abruptly. There were not one but two blacksmiths at the forge. He grunted not liking it but cautious. The bigger blacksmith could easily kill most of his men. Besides the orc was tired of looking for the runaway human, eight days had passed and they had yet to find the miserable worm. He wanted to return to his comfortable routine, warm fire and raw meat. And the captain had already got a new human to play with.
"Smith!" bellowed the orc, yet he kept a good distance away from the heavily muscled giant.
Bard turned around and nodded at the assembled orcs.
"How may I be 'o service?" he enquired mildly.
The orc scowled at the smith. There was no fear in the man's brown eyes, just a deep calm. The orc noticed that the youth had stopped his work and was staring at the ground. He could smell fear rising from this one. A grin reappeared on his misshapen face.
"Who gave yer leave to have 'elp." The orc enquired angrily, pointing at the youth while taking a step towards the big man. The youth he noticed was fidgeting nervously at the anvil. Bard turned fully to face the orcs. "It is very simple; I caught him stealing my food. He is mine now."
The orc leader was taken aback. "Yours..." he asked disbelievingly.
"Mine," growled Bard.
There was silence, even the youth had turned to face them. The orc squinted at the youth. He was tall and thin. His long tangled hair was twisted into a braid away from his dirty face. He did not look very much like the runaway, but there was one way to be orc turned to one of his underlings,
"You, smell him."
Bard held his breath, while the smallest of the orcs loped towards the young man. The creature took its time and sniffed him thoroughly. From feet onto groin, chest and neck, down his back and legs. Bard licked his lips as the orc retreated to its captain side. But he need not have worried, Aragorn's skin smelt of fire, earth, wood and old sweat, Bard's sweat.
The orc whispered something to the leader in their strange language. Squeals and grunts of laughter broke out among the orcs. Bard shot a glance at Aragorn who shrugged in return. Finally the orcs regained controlled of themselves.
"Go on with your work smith, we will search elsewhere," the orc orcs went away laughing as they disappeared among the maze of tents and fire pits.
Aragorn sagged in relief but Bard without comment simply resumed his work at the forge. Aragorn watched him a while marvelling anew at his skill. After a short time Bard turned to Aragorn, "Well young thief get to work, we have some days yet before your service is finished."
Aragorn picked up a long wooden handle and began to smooth it with coarse sand. It would be several days before Bard would show him a safe way out of the slave city of Nurn.