Chapter 1: Touring the Pantries of Hollin
Usually, when females saw him, their eyes widened in horror and revulsion, a scream tore from their throats, and they ran for cover; this one was no different. Not what Ufhau would mistake for a 'come hither' response. Annoying, really. Damn hard to concentrate with that racket going on, too. Snarling a warning over his shoulder as he rifled the pantry didn't quiet her, either; only seemed to make the wailing worse. Finally losing his patience, he strode across the small kitchen, yanked open the back door, grabbed the woman by the hair, and thrust her outside. She lost her balance and sprawled face down on the ground.
He slammed the door shut behind her, took a deep breath of relief in the sudden quiet, and resumed foraging. Stupid fucking tark, he thought.
Right before winter seemed to be the best time to raid these lone farmsteads, Ufhau had discovered awhile back. The old and sick animals were slaughtered, the meat cured. Racks of flesh were prepared and ready for the taking. He had survived on his own for four winters since the War's end on the provisions he was able to liberate. Summers were best for hunting; not only was the game plentiful, but it gave good sport. Drawing a clawed hand across the leather jerkin he wore, and the scar it concealed, he fondly recalled the aurochs bull he'd tussled with the previous year.
War had hardened him, but even the end of wars had its challenges. Ufhau was an outcast even among other orcs, curse that Sharkû and all his black deeds. The wizard may have made the Fighting Uruk-hai, but he gave them nothing outside a thirst for blood. What good is that when the battle is lost? Not for the first time, or the last, Ufhau grumbled darkly to himself over his ill luck. Yes, he was superior in nearly all ways to his snaga cousins. He could calculate and reason, he could think things through and act with forethought, a capable leader by any measure. He did not weaken in the sun, though his night vision was piss-poor at best. He was tall and strong, a formidable opponent in any fight. Yet for all that, he had not drawn his sword against Men since his master's fall. Superiority over Men had gained his people nothing. Attempting to remind them of his superiority would mark him. They would hunt him, as they had done to the other survivors of Isengard's fall.
Stirring the dying coals in his spare campfire, Ufhau snorted indelicately, brooding. Sharkû encouraged their sense of their own superiority, to their ruin. First, their hubris doomed them at Helm's Deep. Ufhau would never sleep peacefully in a forest again. Second, the Uruk-hai had always, without remorse, treated all other orcs like shit. His initial hope of joining Sauron's orcs after escaping the army's defeat was quickly snuffed out when he encountered a scouting band of them along the borders of Gondor. No, they did not welcome him. Not at all. Barely got away with his hide more or less intact.
As it turned out, the Dark Lord got his in the end anyway, leaving not just Ufhau but countless other orcs struggling to find their place in this world of Men. The snaga had their holes to hide in; not so the Isengarders. They only knew the forge-hot pits, and did not have a comfortable recollection of cool, dark tunnels to return to. They did not have a life to return to; more trees had seen to that.
Ufhau sometimes wondered why he held on, sneaking into farmhouses and barns, stealing food. One of these days, he was going to find one that had more than an elderly couple or a terrified widow inside. Grunting with grim amusement, he banked the fire and wrapped himself up in his cloak, another trophy of his raiding, and curled up to sleep.
"Let her go," the grey-skinned orc growled. "It'll be more fun when she's run a bit."
The other three orcs grinned lewdly and released the stricken woman. She stood trembling, trying to pull her tattered shawl around her shoulders more tightly. The orcs just laughed.
"Run, tark bitch!" the leader barked, slapping her buttocks hard enough to knock her down. She staggered, but regained her balance. "We'll give you a head start, if you like."
She needed no further encouragement. Gathering up her skirts, she bolted off into the fields.
Laden with his heavy pack, Ufhau trudged up the hill, eyes on the ground. He didn't much like the sun, for all that it did him no real harm. It was far too bright for his small yellow eyes, even this late in the year. He much preferred the evening, when the sun was setting and the moon was rising. Twilight was more his time of day.
As he crested the hill, immersed in his thoughts, he was stunned by a small figure barreling into him. He might have kept his feet had he not just filled his pack to bursting. Windmilling his arms in vain, he tipped over backwards, gripping the figure as he rolled and tumbled back down the hill.
When they stopped, several things assaulted his senses at once. The fear smell. The scent of man-flesh. Correction, woman-flesh, for men did not smell quite like their females. Tark blood. He struggled out of his pack straps and gained his feet, albeit with difficulty for he was tangled up in woman and skirts.
"What the fuh...," he bellowed, then stopped. At the top of the hill, winded after what must have been a long chase, stood four little snaga orcs of Mordor, if he was any judge. Snarling, Ufhau drew his sword and roared a challenge. Oh, this was going to be fun; he hadn't swept the head off a runty orc in many a year. The group cockily swarmed toward him, and he met them with fierce joy.
Wading into the four yelping snaga, Ufhau quickly dispatched the first one, taking advantage of their surprise. They hadn't expected him to attack; maybe they thought he'd keep his distance, being outnumbered. Clearly, they were unfamiliar with Isengarders. The huge Uruk dwarfed even the largest among them, not only in body but voice as well. His enraged roars echoed across the plains.
The smaller orcs didn't stand a chance against the seasoned warrior. Though they had undoubtedly seen some action in the War, they lacked the level of training provided in Isengard. Ten minutes were all Ufhau needed to slay the remaining three.
The big Uruk cleaned his blade on the grass, then looked around. He was almost surprised to see the woman; he'd forgotten about her in the heat of battle. She was huddled against the hillside, staring at him, eyes wide with fear. There were bruises on her face, cuts on her shoulders where the orcs had torn through her clothes. It was no mystery what they were planning for her.
Sneering with contempt, he shouldered his pack once again, then turned away. He had miles to go to his winter lair; no time to waste on sniveling tark females.
"Wait!" she suddenly called. Frowning, he halted and looked back. She hadn't come any closer, but she was standing shakily, hugging herself and trembling from head to toe. "Thank you."
Ufhau started. Narrowing his eyes, he regarded her for several seconds before grunting, jerking his chin in a brief nod, and continuing on his way.
"Please!" she cried, her voice desperate. He took several purposeful strides before turning this time. He glared at her, curling his lip in a snarl as a low growl escaped him.
"What the fuck do you want?" Ufhau barked. She jumped, backing up a couple of paces and clutching her throat.
"I...please, I...I need help," she stammered quietly, seemingly struck almost speechless by his cold glare.
"You cannot be serious," he growled. Facing her fully, he leaned down and grabbed one of the corpses by the hair. One fluid motion with his sword severed the head, and the body slumped back to earth. With a casual flip, he tossed the head at her, and it rolled to a stop at her feet. Glassy unseeing eyes stared up at her from the pain-contorted, bestial face. She barely suppressed a scream.
"You don't need any more help." Turning on his heel, he stalked off again, shaking his head.
"They killed my family!" she cried, somehow finding her voice and at least a token amount of courage. "My home is not far, but...I'm...I'm afraid to go alone." Her voice trailed off awkwardly as he stopped once more.
Patience was not a virtue Ufhau possessed in any measure. He could feel the turning of the season upon the land and was anxious to reach the relative safety and warmth of the south. It was a journey he made each year; south during the cold months, north during the warm. This bloody tark was going to delay him; he might not make it to his southern lair before the first snows flew. The thought sent him into a rage.
Whirling around, Ufhau stomped toward the cringing woman. Grabbing her by the throat, he held her up so she had no choice but to look at his face. "Find your own kind, tark. I am no wetnurse for tark brats." Pushing her from him with pitiless force, he took some satisfaction at the heap she fell into, barely suppressing the urge to kick her while she was down. Then the crying began, and he winced. Always, the tark response was a flood of water from their eyes. "Shut up!" he roared, covering his sensitive ears. The choking sobs diminished to an occasional hiccup.
Ufhau shifted his pack more comfortably and turned to leave. To his surprise, he was halted by a hand clutching the leather of his leggings.
"Please," the woman whimpered, not looking up at him. "Take me home. Please take me home."
He stomped his foot, dislodging her grip, but did not move. If her home was in the direction from which she came, then he had to grudgingly admit that it was on his way, or near enough to his path that he might not be too delayed in escorting her home. And if the orcs had halted their raid to play with the girl, there might yet be goods he could take with him for his comfort and survival. Sighing with resignation, the promise of the last thought made his decision for him.
"All right," he growled. "But no crying or screaming. I don't like noise, and I will cut your tongue out if it wags overmuch."
She slowly rose, daring a glance at his face as if checking whether he meant his threat. Her eyes darted away quickly, finding no humor there. "It is this way," she whispered, then walked back in the direction of her home.
Ufhau trudged along behind her, watching her move. He'd never spent more than a few minutes in the presence of a human before killing it, and only a few more with their females to satisfy his lust before killing them. He couldn't honestly say he wanted it any other way at the moment. Damned tarks were a pain in his ass if left alive.
However, she seemed to take his warning seriously, and made no attempt to speak with him over the next two hours' walking. Finally, the small farmstead hove into view. It was a wreck; even he could see that from a distance. The woman faltered but continued on until they were among the charred ruins of the house. She searched among the debris while Ufhau did the same, though they were looking for different things.
Finally, she cried out in dismay. He spared a glance to see what she found, but snorted with disinterest at the corpse of a man. The smokehouse was undisturbed; he was delighted to find that the orcs had either not found the hut, or were saving it for plunder when they finished with her. There was more meat than he could possibly carry, more than he had seen in one place since Isengard. His eyes misted with a different kind of lust as he pulled a string of sausages down and ate several without pause.
Several packs were in the smokehouse, so he chose two and stuffed them with hams, rashers of bacon, hocks, and other delicacies. Before the orcs destroyed it, this must have been a very successful pig farm, he mused. When he emerged laden with his treasures, the sun had nearly set, and he cursed loudly. Not much travel time left to the day. Just as he thought would happen, that tark bitch delayed him.
Tempted as he was to just leave without bothering to say anything, he grudgingly went looking for her. It was then he noticed the tracks. They were obscured in places by the other orcs' footprints, but he was able to make out a trail leading further south, in the opposite direction the woman had run.
Crouching down, he examined the tracks more closely in the fading light. He picked up the lingering scent of man-flesh. Whoever made the tracks, he ran unhindered and unchased. Was there a village to the south that he didn't know about? Very likely. Or another farmstead. But how far away? The man must have escaped during the raid, which meant he had plenty of time to find help and bring it back.
Straightening, Ufhau cursed even more loudly. "Tark!" he roared, looking around. Pricking his ears, he heard the faint sound of digging. Following the sound, he came upon the woman digging a hole. On the ground nearby were the corpses of an older woman and man, undoubtedly her parents. She had found trousers and a man's tunic to wear for this work. Her dark hair was pulled into a loose bun at the back of her head; many tendrils had escaped, making her look harried and grim.
"What are you doing?" he finally asked.
Startled, she nearly dropped the spade as she whirled at the sound of his voice. "I'm...I'm...they're...I'm burying them."
"Why?" he snarled, frowning.
She seemed momentarily at a loss. "Because...they're dead." She swallowed hard and briefly closed her eyes.
"So? Burn them and be done."
Her eyes flared and for the first time he saw something like fierceness in her expression. "We do not burn the dead. It is disrespectful." She seemed almost sniffily offended by his suggestion.
"Well, Miss High-and-Mighty, you tarks don't seem to have a problem burning our dead. I have seen piles of orcs smoldering on the plains many times." He couldn't suppress his smugness when she blanched and shivered.
"I...I...I didn't know," she stammered in a near whisper. Then she raised her eyes for a moment, looking into his. "What do you do with your dead?"
His lip curled. "We eat them," he snapped, taking additional pleasure at the look of horror on her face. Who cared if it was a lie? Reaching out, he yanked the spade from her hands and threw it aside. "Who else was here, besides them? I saw tracks going south."
She stared blankly at him for a moment, then again closed her eyes. Her head bowed. "A man my father had arranged to wed me. Fin...something. When the orcs came, he...he ran away."
Ufhau snorted his disdain. "Coward," he growled. She nodded her agreement but said no more. His brow furrowed. "Arranged to wed you?"
Again she nodded. "It is past time I was...sent off, I suppose. We are very isolated here. There aren't that many men to marry, not since the war." Her voice trailed off and she dared a glance at him. "Is my...tongue wagging too much?"
He only grunted. Settling his packs more comfortably, he turned and marched southeast, figuring he could put a good couple of miles between himself and the farm before it grew too dark to see.
"Where are you going?" she called to his retreating form.
"You're home, I'm done with you," he replied over his shoulder without slacking his pace. He could hear her footsteps following him and groaned inwardly.
"You're leaving me here?" Her voice sounded surprised and a little frightened.
"Wait there for your man to return," he snarled. He felt a tug on his arm and whirled around, stopping so suddenly she plowed into his chest. She looked up into his bestial face, contorted with a towering rage, and cringed back several steps.
"Please," she breathed. "I...don't...I don't trust him."
Ufhau's jaw dropped open, revealing his sharp, jagged, yellow teeth. She shuddered at the sight of them. Recovering himself, he laughed. "Foolish tark, you do not trust me, do you?"
She shook her head vigorously, her wide-open eyes glued to his.
"Then why do you run at my heels like a dog?" he sneered.
"You...because...I," she stammered.
"Spit it out, tark!" he bellowed. She was so startled by his sudden ferocity that she stumbled backwards and landed on her rear end in the grass. Crossing his arms over his chest, he glared down at her. "Don't. You. Dare. Weep," he snarled through gritted teeth.
She swallowed the tears that were threatening and drew a shuddering breath. "Because you are an orc, and... well...wickedness is expected of you."
He rolled his eyes. "Is that what you want, then?" he roared. "You chase after me, hoping I will do something to you? Is that it?"
"No!" she cried, and struggled to her feet. She mustered what dignity she could and lifted her chin. "You have not...harmed me. Though you...terrify me...," she replied hesitantly, "you have done me no harm, and I am grateful for that."
Grunting dismissively, he nodded. "Keep going. I long for you to begin making sense."
She took a few halting steps toward him. "That man...Fin something...he had a look in his eye that I did not like. It made me feel...," she said, then faltered. "I think he wants the farm. Taking me to wife would give it to him, but if we are all dead, he needn't...be...so burdened."
"I do not give a shit what whiteskins do to one another for land or cunt," the Uruk snarled. She winced at his words, but said nothing. "I travel alone. Stay here and deal with your pathetic man. I do not need a burden either." Once more, he turned and stomped on his way, but she halted him with quiet words.
"You are not so wicked as I thought," she said quietly. "Perhaps none of you truly are."
He stood still, glaring into the distance that was becoming less and less clear as the stars began hesitantly popping alight in the darkening sky. "Yes, we are," he said in a low, rumbling voice. "Killing tarks marks you. Men hunt you down. They do not leave you in peace. I just want peace."
"That is what I want, too," she said softly. He twitched when she touched him again, and looked at the slender white hand on his dark leather-covered arm.
"There cannot be peace between us," he replied, half-heartedly shaking her hand off him.
"Let me come with you," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "At least...until you grow tired of me. I cannot bear being alone as you do. I do not know how you can stand it."
Turning suddenly, he grasped her arms tightly. Her eyes widened in terror under his baleful gaze. "I am already tired of you." He flung her away from him, and she staggered but did not fall. If she had fallen, he might have leapt upon her, given her a reason not to follow him.
The sound of horses' hooves pounding the turf came to his sharp ears, and he whirled southward. The coward was coming, with several friends, it seemed. Cursing her viciously, he took off running east toward the foothills he had seen earlier in the day. Her soft footfalls kept pace with him, but he was too anxious to care. Four snaga orcs were easy to dispatch, and simple entertainment. He did not know what force of men were brought to the farm or how they were armed. He didn't want to get caught by them, in any case, and have his winter road cut off if the tarks suddenly acquired brains and began watching for his migrations.
The three heavy packs weighed Ufhau down, and hindered his speed. The woman, curse her, easily kept pace with him, hampered as he was. A steady stream of swearing in his guttural tongue rumbled from him, in time with his pounding feet.
They reached the foothills hours later and stopped to rest. Though he was merely winded from the run, the woman collapsed, gasping, on the ground and did not move. That she had made it this far without complaint surprised him, and he had to give her grudging respect for that. He let the packs slide to the ground and turned his nose into the wind, scenting the air. All he could smell was her, dammit. A legion of men could be five yards away and he'd never know it in the darkness.
"There is a stream near here," he growled, hefting the packs and heading towards the faint trickling sounds. "You could use a wash. I can't smell anything but your filthy sweat."
Taking a deep breath, she hauled herself to her feet. "You are no spring flower yourself," she snapped.
A grunting chuckle escaped him before he could check it. She had cheek, this one. Once on the banks of the stream, he let the packs drop again and began stripping off his leathers.
"What...what are you doing?" she squeaked as he began untying his breeches. Halting, he slowly turned his gaze upon her, clawed hands poised over the laces. She was staring at him, or more accurately, at his hands, eyes wide with shock. It was not so dark under the crescent moon that she could not know the answer to her own question.
"I go to wash," he said flatly. "As you so helpfully pointed out, I am in need of it." He resumed yanking at the leather thongs, worrying a knot that seemed reluctant to give way.
"Stop, please!" she cried, and now she had her hands over her eyes, as if just turning her back was insufficient to hide him from her.
A sly grin spread across his face. "You have not even seen a man before, have you, little girl?" he said, delighted. With quick, brutal movements, he freed himself of his breeches and stood directly behind where she sat, his member teased to partial erection by the cool night breeze and her nearness. "Take a look, girl. You know you want to."
She straightened stiffly and crossed her arms over her chest, her gaze resolutely leveled at the trees on the opposite bank. "A gentleman does not say such things to a lady."
His laugh was loud, sudden, and deep, and for some reason seemed to ease a tension he hadn't realized he felt. "I am no gentleman, girl, or had you not noticed?"
"My name is not 'girl'," she snapped. "I am Kara. And I am no child; I'm nearly twenty years old."
"My apologies, Lady Kara," he growled, bending forward in a mocking bow she did not see but surely must have sensed. "If it pleases her highness, I will wash myself. The lady may watch if she wants to." Chuckling under his breath, he waded into the stream in front of her, amusement mounting as she shifted position to keep her eyes averted from his nakedness.
It truly felt good, scrubbing days of dust, blood, and sweat off his hide. Ironically, his affection for bathing was inspired by an unfortunate miscalculation of geography that dumped him into a bottomless pit in Isengard when he returned there two years ago to see how it had changed. The dunking had given him his first taste of clean skin, and he found he liked it. Though he was still a rather hopeless swimmer, he could at least keep from drowning if not challenged too much.
When he finished, he returned to the bank, threw down a blanket, and stretched out under the stars. The chilly air on his body felt good, too. He could feel himself getting drowsy, sluggish. He could almost forget all the stupid things that had happened to him today.
"I would like to wash, too," Kara said quietly. By the sound of her voice, he was fairly certain she was still turned away from him. He was too lazy to bother opening his eyes to make sure.
"So wash," he grunted.
"I'm going upriver a bit," she continued. "I don't want you peeking." He heard the crunch of her booted feet on the rocky bank.
"I promise nothing," he mumbled, his voice betraying his complete disinterest in rising to the occasion, in any way. Folding his arms beneath his head, he shifted slightly for greater comfort, and drifted off to sleep.
It seemed he had only just closed his eyes when someone was shaking him awake.
"Orc!" a voice hissed in his ear. "Wake up!"
Even after a proper rest, Ufhau was a surly grump in the morning. However, it was not morning yet; only the barest hint of the sky lightening toward dawn could be seen. Yellow eyes flaring open, he grabbed the offending female by the throat and squeezed. "Pray you have a good reason for this," he snarled.
"Horses!" she gasped, trying to pry his fingers loose. Immediately releasing her, he leaped up. His leather jerkin, apparently thrown modestly over him as he slept, fell to the ground. He spared a glance at Kara, but she was already scrambling around the camp, gathering up their blankets and packs. She seemed more afraid of discovery than he was.
Shrugging, he hastily dressed, grabbed two of the packs, and ran across the shallow stream, the woman at his heels, staggering under the weight of the third.
Tark = man of Numenorean descent; derogatory term for humans in general as Ufhau reckons
Snaga = 'lesser' orcs; pretty much any not born in Isengard by Ufhau's estimation
Sharkû = old man; used by Uruk-hai to refer to Saruman