A/N: Got a couple of older ladies just to prove to Nandadevi that they don't all have to be [semi-]virginal and young to get into one of my fics. :D
"There, you see?" Leofwen murmured to the sleeping Uruk in her charge. She smoothed a damp cloth over his brow. "Just over there. One of your fellows woke yesterday, and he is already gaining strength." Pursing her lips with equal measures of amusement and disapproval, she added, "He has quite a wicked tongue. I hope you will not be so ill-mannered."
Though she kept her voice gentle and soothing, inside Leofwen was anxious. Improvements were small and difficult to see; his color was gradually darkening, and he swallowed a touch more readily when fed. Once during the night, she saw his lips quiver, as though he were about to say something. Other signs seemed to imply that his strength was returning, and his body had begun to fight against his illness.
It might have been weariness and false hope making her see what wasn't so, but Heresuid beside her, whose patient appeared by his graying hair to be considerably older than any of the others, agreed that Leofwen's charge seemed to be improving.
What will he be like when he wakes? she wondered as she pulled back the thick layering of blankets to bathe his chest. The brand seemed faded now that his color was darkening, but she could still see the majestic bird rising from the flames. To have such a hopeful mark upon him must surely mean he would awaken.
She hoped he would not be as terrifying as Aanash had been, and still was. Eanfled's hands shook and her eyes often widened with shock; sometimes the Orc's words reached Leofwen's ears, and they were anything but kind. The poor girl was beside herself. At least he hadn't struck her again.
Even as Leofwen finished her patient's washing, Heresuid huffed.
"Come along, dearie," she said. "It's time." She slowly rose on knees just beginning to ache when the weather changed. Smoothing her skirts, the middle-aged woman sighed and headed for the hallway. Leofwen laid out her damp cloths to dry and joined her.
The women conferred each morning, sharing news and progress as well as asking advice. This morning, several were anxious; moreso than they had been when receiving their initial instructions before the Orcs arrived. Leofwen remembered that moment, and those who were unwilling to volunteer for the duty. How their faces took on a mask of horror and they wept and pleaded to be excused. Leofwen's respect for her mentor soared in that moment, when Eadburga embraced each one and assured them that they were not required to make such a sacrifice. They did not have to be in the same hall among those whose like had abused them. Those that could stomach the presence of the Orcs were barely enough to assign one to each, but they were a blessed group: none had directly suffered at the hands of an Orc.
Until now, it seemed. Sunngifu's absence was marked. The suspicious disappearance of the scowling, malevolent Orc from the hall spoke strongly to their nervousness. None were foolish enough to believe the two occurrances were unconnected. It only remained for Burga to enlighten them on the matter.
The first order of business, however, took precedence over gossip. A habit had formed, of hearing the report of each healer before addressing specific concerns. Leofwen only absently listened to their words – no change, beginning to accept solid food, vomiting has lessened, learned of his fate and wept – and let her thoughts wander. Gunda had returned, though she sometimes raised a kerchief to dab her eyes. Leofwen understood: they had each allowed their pity to swell. It was difficult not to, when looking upon a person who had once been strong, now laid low. While it was true the Orcs had done monstrous things with their strength, few showed a desire to carry on such behavior now.
Leofwen was certain to feel her failure as acutely as Gunda clearly did, should her own charge slip through her fingers into death. Even if he didn't have a chance to speak to her first, as Gunda's Orc had done, she would mourn his passing. Perhaps because he couldn't now, and likely wouldn't. She frowned and tried not to think of that possibility. I will succeed, she told herself firmly. He will waken, and prove his quality one way or another.
"He is most belligerent," Eanfled sighed. Because they shared space in the row of sleepers, Leofwen listened to her neighbor's report. "He has, twice now, clenched his fist to restrain himself from striking me. I cannot give him the meat he wishes: his body will not accept it. I have explained this to him several times, but he will not listen."
"Hmph," Tortgyd snorted, folding her heavy arms over her bosom. An elder healer whose age and experience earned her the respect of every person in the keep, the formidable woman came to Helm's Deep in the company of her folk when they fled before the armies of Isengard. Despite her vast wealth of knowledge virtually guaranteeing her place as lead healer, she neither expected nor demanded it. Eadburga's initial attempt to step aside and defer to her greater wisdom was met with a characteristic snort, a dismissive wave, and assurance that she was too old to run around behind a pack of ninny healers. Point her to an ailing man and she would do her part like anyone else.
She insisted they call her Auntie Torta if they must be formal.
"Yes, Auntie?" Eadburga said respectfully, but also biting the inside of her mouth to keep from smiling.
"Don't be wasting your time on talk," Torta advised. "A firm hand's what's wanted. Like spoiled little boys, they are."
"Have you encountered difficulties from Zofkraat?" Burga asked, frowning with concern.
"Aye," the elder woman replied matter-of-factly. "That little cuss came into my care on fire with fever, the poor lad. Twas a battle I had on my hands, and I fought it all night. By morning, I'd won, and he seemed none the worse for it. He was a bit anxious, being here among us, and him so weak and all. I spoke gentle to him, like one does a spooked horse." She frowned sternly at the tittering among the youngest healers, some of whom had occasionally been spoken 'gently' to themselves. "Then as you know, that poor wretch Khûriip passed and along comes the troublemaker, telling all the Orcs we were after them with poison and not to eat anything. Well, as you can imagine that put Zofkraat off his feed in an instant." Leaning forward indignantly, Torta went on, "The little hooligan bared his teeth and snarled at me when I tried to give him his soup! 'None of this nonsense!' I told him, and handled him on the spot."
"What did you do?" Eanfled asked, her wide-eyed awe barely masking delicious anticipation of the elder healer's reply.
"Why, I rapped him smartly on the nose, as I would a dog who'd done the same," Torta declared. Gazing about the assembly with smug assurance, she sniffily added, "Then by Béma, he ate his lunch."
"While your... tale is encouraging, Auntie Torta, not all of us are as brave as you," Eadburga smiled. "I will speak with Burzash on the matter." It seemed to Leofwen that the mention of the Orcs' leader made Burga uncomfortable, for she swallowed a bit harder than normal and her cheeks flushed. "There may be something he can do," she went on, turning to Eanfled. "You will not have to endure Aanash's poor behavior for long, I am sure. Is he otherwise managing well?"
"Yes, ma'am," Eanfled nodded resignedly. "I do not suppose..." She glanced among her fellow healers somewhat helplessly. "Could you ask him to... see if his... fellows might... use fewer... swear words? At least the truly offensive ones." A few others nodded agreement.
"Perhaps my situation is different," Elfhild said, "but when I am speaking with one of the healthier ones, I barely note it. He uses foul words, it is true, but he does not do so in an abusive manner. It is... simply the way he talks."
"Well, Aanash seeks to do harm with his tongue where he can do naught with his hands," Eanfled replied crossly. "I do not have such a civil Orc as you do."
"I will mention this to Burzash as well," Burga assured her. "There is no reason for Aanash to offend you. Leofwen, have you anything new to report?"
"There is little improvement, but some," Leofwen sighed. "I have found that very hot broth urges his response, and he swallows more readily. He has taken in a great deal of medicine, and his skin is beginning to darken toward... normal, I suppose." Her cheeks hot, she said delicately, "He has... responded... somewhat... when I have washed his... privates. After he has passed water."
Though this news was encouraging, and showed the Orc was approaching a state of awareness, it was nonetheless quite embarrassing. Leofwen glanced sheepishly among her peers and saw a few trying to suppress a sympathetic, or perhaps knowing, smile.
"Yes, well, that is... a good sign," Burga said awkwardly. Shifting her attention away from the blushing Leofwen, she said, "Elfhild, do you believe Fulgirgûg is healthy enough to survive taking his leg? We should not allow it to go on much longer."
"I believe so," the woman nodded. "He was not as grievously ill as the others. It was his leg more than anything that weakened the rest of him. I think he will do well enough."
"Good," Eadburga replied. "We should manage it today, then. I think Burzash should be present, to reassure him..."
"I can't," Elfhild interrupted with embarrassment. Her cheeks darkened a bit. "I apologize, but I haven't felt quite... well. The heat in the hall has been bothersome, and the smells... I do not think I would be of much help, and I wouldn't want to faint in the middle of it."
"Dear, are you all right? You have not been vomiting, have you?"
"No, just... a bit queasy at times. If I eat a little something, it passes, but... I am just unsettled, I suppose." She looked helplessly at the lead healer.
"Very well, you needn't attend," Burga replied worriedly. "But if you feel your symptoms match those of the Orcs, do tell me, won't you? I do not know if their ailment can spread, but I would not want to chance it."
"I will," Elfhild assured her with relief.
"Gunda, would you mind filling in for Hilda? I could use an extra pair of hands."
"Of course," Gunda nodded. "Once I see to it that Kalus has had something to eat, I am at your service."
"Good. Now, if there are no other concerns..."
"There is one," Elfhild said pointedly, her brow furrowed. "What of Sunni? What has become of her, and that Maukum who lurked about? Are the rumors true, that he attacked her and has been locked in a cell?"
Concerned murmuring among the women as they compared snippets of gossip ensued. Burga had to raise her voice to be heard over the tumult.
"Ladies, please!" she cried. "There is nothing to fear. The problem has been dealt with." Looking from one anxious, unconvinced face to another, she sagged with defeat. "What you heard was true. Sunni was... attacked, but Maukum was thwarted. His own leader, Burzash, was on hand and inflicted grievous wounds upon his fellow."
"Yes, I have seen Burzash since," one of the younger healers confirmed. "He is covered with bandages. I wondered if he'd fallen down stairs."
"And I saw him have at Kalus," another pointed out. "Sunni's Orc is skin and bones, and he knocked him straight over."
"Indeed, I was obliged to sew his wounds," Burga nodded. "He gave worse than he received, I assure you. He will not tolerate such behavior of his Orcs. Nor, in Kalus's case, will he suffer any of them being abusive to you. If any of your patients so much as whisper a threat to your person, let me know, or go directly to Burzash if the threat is dire. He is a good... person, and he does not want to see his people carrying on what their master urged them to do."
"If Maukum is in worse condition," Heresuid asked suspiciously, "who among us must tend him?"
"None of you," Burga assured her quickly. "Lord Erkenbrand has engaged Walder in the task."
"Walder?" Elfhild repeated incredulously. "He only knows horses!"
Burga struggled not to laugh. "Erkenbrand felt that such knowledge was sufficient for the likes of Maukum."
As the healers dispersed to their charges and their duties, Leofwen's thoughts wandered. In such a short span of time, she'd become accustomed to attending to her Orc. There was nothing about him she hadn't seen and touched. She could not look at him as a beast or monster now, for he seemed too Manlike in his making. If not for the darker skin, the sharply pointed ears, the claws, and the teeth, he looked nearly like a Dunlending. True, there were other subtleties of feature that bespoke 'Orc' when looking at him, but she had never seen his heavier forehead bunched in anger. She had never seen his admittedly sharp teeth bared, or heard harsh words spoken by him.
While he lay still and distant, barely responsive and unaware, she could not imagine how he could have come from the same place as that vile creature, Maukum.
It was a struggle for Burga to approach Burzash after the meeting with her healers. Not quite able to meet his gaze, she asked quietly, "Have you a moment?"
"Yeah," the Orc nodded, his brow furrowed with uncertainty. He followed her to the side of the hall where there were no pallets, and afforded them a clear view of the entire room. Both seemed to find their conversation easier when provided with so many other things they could reasonably be looking at besides one another.
"How do you fare, Burzash?" she asked, glancing at the bandage holding his newly-sewn ear in place. "Do your wounds pain you at all?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm all right. I've gotten worse." He half laughed and shrugged, looking at the floor, a support pillar nearby, the nearest row of pallets... anywhere but at Burga.
"I've been informed that our horsemaster is looking after Maukum," she said. "An older man. Erkenbrand doesn't want one of us to be... near him, under the circumstances." Again, Burzash nodded.
"Don't blame him," he said, a hint of a growl forming in his voice. "Fucking bastard." Closing his eyes, he turned his head away.
"It was not your fault," the woman hastened to assure him. "Do not blame yourself."
"Who'm I gonna blame, eh?" Burzash snarled, finally meeting her gaze. His eyes were intensely hostile, yet she felt no threat directed at herself. "Still too... fucking weak to... Should've fuckin' killed him. Out on the plains. Before we even got here. He was talkin' 'bout havin' at Romana. Should've killed him then."
Taking a deep breath, Burga forced herself to touch his arm. "He didn't lay a hand upon her, did he?"
"No," the Orc growled low. "Rukh would've torn him apart." He looked up sharply at Burga, his eyes narrowing. She nodded understanding.
"He owes her his life," she supplied. "I heard you say so. I confess, your words..." Sighing impatiently with herself, she added, "I should not have listened, but I could not help myself. I assure you, I do not normally hide around corners eavesdropping on the private business of others."
Burzash chuckled at her sheepish confession, and she looked up to see how his face wore even so little amusement. Though only one side of his mouth tipped up in a smile, and his head was bowed so that she could not quite see his eyes, he seemed to relax a bit. His forehead was not so lined with anger and frustration for one blissful moment.
"Burzash," she said seriously, "I am glad you didn't. You each have been afforded a chance at redemption. Perhaps Maukum simply needs a firmer hand. Let Erkenbrand try. I confess, I am glad; not that Sunni suffered, but that Maukum did something that demanded action. It may be the saving of his life." Burzash looked her in the eyes, and she felt her heart quicken its already-rapid beating. "I can see in your face that you do not believe he deserves such a chance. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a foolhardy attempt. But we have time, and so long as Erkenbrand has the will to try..."
The Orcs' leader nodded and lowered his gaze. "Shouldn't complain, I know. I just don't wanna see nobody else get hurt."
"As to that, I have heard complaints of Aanash," Burga said briskly, lest the Orc's presence unravel her control. What began as a hand upon his arm to comfort him had lingered too long, and she hastily ended that contact. Stop this madness and look at him. What is he? Burga, you fool, he is an Orc! Dismiss your wicked thoughts! There cannot be... it simply cannot be. There is no excuse for this... this... delusion. Stop seeing a desirable Man where an Orc stands! Gathering herself, she related Eanfled's words, forcing herself to watch the Orc and woman in question, rather than meet Burzash's gaze.
"He bein' a shit to his healer too?" he growled. By his expression and the balling of his fists, the woman feared he would storm across the hall and violently correct the Orc's behavior without any understanding of the nature of the complaint.
"Burzash, please," she hissed, and found her hand once more seeking his arm. She let it have its way; he clearly needed a reminder to calm himself. You see? He is without gentleness or restraint. He would never live up to such fanciful dreams as your mind conjures, foolish woman! "Listen to me. He has only spoken harshly. I do not know the particulars, only that Eanfled was offended. It may have been his choice of words only, but he sounds... threatening to her ears. Urge him to treat more decently with her; that is all I ask."
The Orc huffed, seething with indignation. "'Harsh words' sent your Sunni outta this hall, right into Maukum's hands. I ain't havin' even words from those bastards. You lot don't deserve it, not a bit of it. If I have to cave in every face in the hall, I'll make sure they know it."
Starting with alarm, Burga said awkwardly, "I... I hope you speak in jest, Burzash. Surely you wouldn't..."
"If they're strong enough to mouth off," the Orc snarled, glaring at her, "they're strong enough for the consequences. Kalus's lucky he was feelin' bad for what he done, or I wouldn't've held back. The shit he said..." Grimacing, he turned his furioius gaze on the sickly Uruk being fed by Gunda. "Oughta take the whip to'im."
"What ever did he say?" she breathed, a hand going to her mouth in shock. She'd always thought of Sunni as a strong-willed person; surely there was very little this Orc could have said to upset her, or bad enough his commander wished to punish him so severely.
"I dunno," Burzash snapped distractedly. "Made some dig at what happened to her, back at her village. Figured it out somehow, and said somethin' about it."
Burga's brow furrowed curiously. "What do you mean, what happened to her?"
Consumed by his fury at Kalus, Burzash failed to notice the woman's bewilderment, or the complete absence of recognition in her face. His eyes were on Kalus, where he considered it safer to look when he was this close to Burga.
"He figured she was raped by one of us," Burzash replied impatiently. "Not likely one'uh these here, but... anyway, he didn't need to be sayin' nothin' about it. Ain't somethin' you talk about; sure as fuck ain't somethin' you dig at someone for." Finally, he glanced at Burga, and he ground to a halt.
By the look on her face, the Orc knew instantly that Sunni's history was not common knowledge. Burga's eyes had widened with shock; her mouth hung open. Burzash snapped his mouth shut on any further words and almost felt himself shrinking, as though he'd said something completely out of line and cowardly retreat was the wisest option.
It took a few moments for Burga to collect herself and speak. "Is this true?" she gasped, barely able to breathe. "I asked all of the ladies if... if they had reason not to... to tend your folk. They did not have to give reasons. Several declined; I demanded no explanation of them. How could I have missed...? Oh, Sunni. Oh my." She turned away from Burzash and sought a bench nearby for support. Sinking down, she stared into space, one hand covering her heart to still its mad thudding. "I had no idea."
Unsure what to do, for he'd made this mistake and ought to see it righted, Burzash awkwardly joined her on the bench, his gaze also directed anywhere but at her or the folk in the hall. His back slumped and he clasped his hands between his knees. "Sorry. Didn't know you... didn't know. Probably ain't true. He probably said... said somethin' along them lines, and... cause... it's fuckin' wrong and offensive and... and shit, she took off so she wouldn't punch him in the nose for it. That's probably how it went. Probably."
"I would never have asked her to see to him, if I'd known," Burga whispered as if he hadn't spoken. "I would not have let her within this hall, if I'd known." Finally looking at the Orc beside her, she saw his pained expression, and felt guilt for throwing such a thing in his face. "I am sorry, Burzash. It must hurt..."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I understand. We probably... all look the same to you. So... one's as good as another if you've been..." He swallowed with difficulty. "We did it to ourselves, and that's... that's the price we gotta pay. Bein' looked at like... we'll do it again... soon as we're able." He winced and bowed his head. "Maukum's bullshit's made that real clear, ain't it?"
"Maukum's actions are his alone," Burga told him firmly. "So are Kalus's. And yours."
Burzash snorted. "Don't know what the fuck I'm doin'. Just... stumblin' around in the dark, fuckin' up at every turn."
"You are their leader, and they follow your example," Burga told him. "Or they will when they are more awake. Believe it or not, you are giving them a good model to follow, by condemning the wicked deeds you once did. You are not... stumbling."
"Got no right to lead," he growled. "I wasn't no pizdur, or a fuckin' pizbûr, come to that. This lot didn't know me before we got washed outta Isengard." A mirthless smile twitched his mouth. "I was just a pisspot pizurk. Lowest fuckin' rank in the whole army. The sort that gets all the shit work. First to get hit in a fight, last to get fed in the mess hall. Digs the privvies. Fetches shit. Takes shit. Eats shit."
"Yet you have earned their respect as though you were of higher rank," she reasoned. "What made you take them in hand? If you lacked such authority?"
"Somebody had to," he muttered. "Maukum was... he was gonna just leave'em in the river, beggin'. Just ignore'em. Head off with the ones who could get about on their own, and... and stick it to you lot. He's the pizbûr. Would'uh been even more of a shit if he knew he outranked me." Gesturing to the Orcs before them, he went on, "The higher yuh go, the less you see, yuh know? Like... the army's made up of... grunts like me who do the dirty work. We do the killin' and the... other shit. Our pizgal move us around, send us to spots that need... need attention. Then... over the pizgal come the pizbûr, and they don't really... see us no more. They talk to the pizgal and say, 'take your lads over there and support that other pizbûr's flank.' Go higher, and they see less and less of... what they're sendin' at the walls or... who's dyin' rank by rank..." He shook his head, and his hand dropped to his lap. "Don't see nothin' but how much of the enemy's fallin'. Not how much of us are goin' down. Don't see us at all 'less we fuck up, then we sure got their attention."
Shaking his head, he added, "Maukum never saw the ones under him before, and don't see'em now."
"I had no idea," Burga breathed. "You seem so concerned for them. Perhaps I compared you to Men who hold rank, for they are often – at least in my experience – very aware of the men in their charge. They hope to keep casualties as low as possible, for they know each man has a family."
"Guess that's the difference then, eh?" the Orc said bitterly. "We got nothin'. Just meatsacks with a sword; that's all."
"You... don't have... family? A wife, parents, siblings?"
Burzash's throat closed, as did his eyes. He leaned back against the wall. "Wouldn't know," he said tightly, his tone implying that he didn't want to know, or discuss the topic any further. Burga stilled her curious tongue, and for once it obeyed.
"I'll thank yuh not to say nothin' 'bout... my rank to nobody," he muttered without looking at her. "The kinda shit I pulled... likely get me killed. Yuh don't just... take over like I did. Not without bustin' heads first. Provin' you got the right."
"It was needed," Burga said pointedly. "I shudder to think what might have been had Maukum been left to his own devices. Fewer of your folk would be here now, that is certain."
He shrugged, and opened his eyes to gaze at the timbered ceiling. "Rukh might've seen to him, when he and Romana came around, if he was still there. The rest of us, though... probably be dead in the river like all... all the rest." Bowing his head, he once more shut his eyes to what was left of his folk, wishing he didn't see them – the fodder, the shields, the expendable ones – whether his eyes were open or not.
To his surprise, Burga's hand was suddenly in his. He was so startled by this development, all he could do was stare at it: his black hand engulfing her delicately white one. Fragile as a bird's egg.
"You have shown great strength, Burzash," she said softly, her voice seeming to draw his eyes to hers. Though her expression was encouraging, there was a redness to her cheeks that baffled him. "Of will as well as character. Perhaps your master did not see your value, but I... your folk do. You saved them, just as much as Romana did. You have made good decisions, and they will thrive because of it." Taking a deep breath, she smiled a little, though it seemed strained, and her hand trembled in his. He wasn't sure, but it seemed that she'd done something even she hadn't expected when she took his hand, and now wasn't certain how to gracefully retreat. "I will keep your secret, if that is what you want. But I hope such a thing is of little import, when compared with how well you rose above such a modest status, and the lengths you seem willing to go to for their salvation."
Unsure how to respond to her words, or how to interpret her strange gesture, Burzash simply nodded. Her hand was warm, and felt quite nice. His own was rough and caloused, clawed and gnarled. If he let himself think about it, if he consciously compared their hands, he was certain to pull away and hide his, for they were ugly, brutal things. They had no business touching any part of her, however benignly. Her flesh was for soft hands to caress and explore, not for his. She should have a Man's hands upon her, not an Orc's.
But he could not bring himself to let her go.
Startled from his thoughts, the Uruk looked up and saw Erkenbrand standing over them, an inscrutable look on his face. Burzash didn't need to snatch his hand free; Burga was quick off the mark to hide what she'd done. Rising swiftly, she smoothed her skirts and seemed anxious as she collected herself.
"Thank you, Burzash," she said briskly, half turning toward him but not meeting his gaze, "for this talk. If you will see to it that Aanash behaves himself better, it would be appreciated. Oh, could I rely on you when Fulgirgûg's operation must be managed? I believe your presence will... ease the situation."
"Sure," the Orc nodded, his brow furrowed slightly in confusion. "Anything yuh need."
"I will fetch you when the time comes," she nodded shortly. Facing Erkenbrand, she added, "Excuse me, my lord, I must go to Sunni and... and see how she fares." Half glancing back at the Orc, Burga hastened away.
Burzash was afraid to look the Lord of the Westfold in the eye. He'd been caught with a female's hand in his; was that on the list of punishable crimes? The Orc was ready to believe anything at the moment. Slowly rising, he had to drag his guilt-ridden gaze up to the Man's face.
"I would like to speak with you about Maukum," Erkenbrand said with a frown, his voice stern and tight as though barely held in check from a furious explosion.