Chapter Forty-two: The Orc and the Ox
AN: [shifty eyes] Well, that went quicker than I expected... Bugger all if it's not still a busy month for me. Not sure if the next chapter will be along as quickly, but hey, sometimes I am unusually productive. ;P Oh! and Happy New Year!
When she had returned from searching out the plants she would need to aid Cadoc and found a glut of Men gathered around the cave that sheltered him, Rukhash's heart nearly jumped into her throat. Then, she saw Hedon among them, and a part of her breathed a sigh of relief even as a small fury welled in her. Of course he would show up now; after their ordeal with Thraangzi. Rukhash had things well in hand at this point. She did not want to deal with Hedon and his good intensions, which apparently included half the rangers in Gondor.
But she was glad to see him, because her first thought was that Dellon and his group had caught up with them. That was the last thing she needed. Rukhash knew, so long as Hedon was with him, Cadoc would be safe. They were shield brothers, after all.
That didn't mean she felt particularly inclined to engage any of these people. She watched them instead. She watched as the pale woman tended Cadoc's wounds and felt a small stab of unexpected jealousy. She should be the one looking after her shaûk, not some pasty straw-head. She watched as they examined the cave and removed the bones of the men inside and was relieved that they did not set alight the body of her brother. Orcs did not tend their dead in any particular way, but the scent of Thraangzi's charred flesh as he was burned by rangers would have been too much to bear. She watched as Hedon called out to her and did not answer. Rukhash trusted him to see to Cadoc's safety, but she did not trust him to see to hers. She watched as they warmed themselves by the fire, worried over Cadoc and felt a cold longing fill her. Rukhash could be silent as a shadow, but she doubted she could evade so many rangers to sneak a moment by Cadoc's side.
Now she wasn't watching. Now, she was walking towards a group of her sworn enemy. She had forced down her fear and her doubt for a chance to stay near Cadoc, but Hedon's assurances brought her only a small relief. As she approached the mouth of the cave, half the men inside rose to their feet and every fiber of her wanted to run. Rukhash had been conditioned over the years to fear those pale green cloaks. This was not like saving a lone man on the side of her mountain. These men were hale, ready to fight at a moments notice. Her gaze darted from one set of grey eyes to another, like slate and steel and storms, their grim faces fixed on her, and Rukhash wondered if her comfort was worth risking a night among them. They may have been friends to her Cadoc, but they were no friends to orcs.
Lord Faramir and Hedon entered the cave while Rukhash stopped just short, hovering at the mouth. Inside, the ceiling was high enough for the men to stand upright, aside from Hedon, who was slightly stooped. Their blades remained sheathed at their sides, but that did not alleviate the uneasy feeling in Rukhash's gut. Including the woman, there were twelve of them in there, standing between her and Cadoc. Rukhash's eyes darted briefly to his slack face as he slept before her attention returned to the rangers surrounding him. The rain continued to patter down on her. She could feel it dripping down her back, pooling in the hollow of her boots. Her clothes were soaked through, and she shivered slightly as a light gust of cool wind blew over her.
Rukhash felt as though she could cry; though not from any particular sorrow. She was wound into knots, so anxious, she wasn't sure how to relieve the tension. She quietly scowled at herself, and firmed her mouth. She refused to break down in front of these people. They were staring at her expectantly, silently. Even Cadoc's boss seemed at a loss. For all the curiosity his face held, he looked no more inclined to draw her in than any of the men with him.
It was Hedon who finally stepped forward and extended a hand to her. "Come in out of the rain, Rukhash," he said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. Caught off guard by this uncharacteristic show of gentleness towards her, she allowed him to lead her under the eave of the cave. He surprised her further by stepping back, allowing her space, instead of forcing her into the midst of so many strangers.
As Hedon left her side and returned to his place among the others, Faramir gave him an appreciative nod. The orcess didn't bother to greet the men surrounding Cadoc. The second she was standing alone, Rukhash sank to the ground, warily eyeing the lot of them. She removed her quiver and bow from where they were slung, but kept them close; just to her right. No one seemed inclined to forcibly seize them from her, and Faramir did not intend to order them to do so. At the moment, her intensions seemed benign, and she was so high strung, he imagined she would lash out at such an attempt.
Exchanging a look with his wife, he realized Éowyn seemed as hesitant and unsure as he felt. Faramir quietly cleared his throat. "I suppose introductions are in order," he said finally, glancing about. Faramir gestured towards the pair of greying rangers at his right. "This is Rivalon and Calon, Uialon and Oreldir are behind them, this is Cadoc's old mentor, Belegorn." He quietly noted the orcess's uneasy appraisal of the old ranger's scar, but pressed on. "Donir and Míron are the youngest of our group, next to Cadoc are Celeblas, Salaben and Tulustor. Hedon, of course, you know already and this is my wife, Lady Éowyn. She has been seeing to Cadoc's health in your absence." The orcess gave Éowyn a curious look before drawing her knees up to her chest.
She nodded sharply towards all of them. "Hullo," she said quietly.
Like most orcs he had heard speak, her voice had a flat, gravely quality that made it difficult to discern her tenor from that of a male's. In fact, now seeing her in better light, Faramir realized he might have had difficulty ascertaining her gender if he had not known it already. Her tunic was not fitted, falling baggy on her frame. Under different circumstances, he might have easily overlooked the feminine quality of her shape in light of her slightly too long arms and rodent-like feet. Orcs were their own people, with their own look about them. While Cadoc's orc did not bear the ghastly, often disfiguring, scars he had seen on some orc warriors, she possessed the same, animalistic quality to her features that marked her people. For some reason that he now could not place, Faramir had expected her to look more womanlike, with a countenance closer to what he had seen in some half orcs.
Though female, Rukhash was definitely no Woman. As orcs went, she was not horrible to look upon, but she was not attractive by any stretch. Faramir was curious about her, and interested in what made her gentler than the bulk of her folk. He assumed she must posses some comely aspect of personality to have endeared herself to Cadoc, but as Faramir stared into her bright, yellow eyes he wondered what had possessed Cadoc; that he would lay with such an alien creature. He caught himself before his own prejudice had the better of him. Reigning in his unease, Faramir decided not to draw any unfounded conclusions against the orcess or Cadoc. It was not his place to judge another man's heart.
Hedon appeared suddenly at his side. "Perhaps it would be best if everyone took a seat, my lord," he said, making sure his words were for Faramir's ears alone. Glancing towards the massive young man, Faramir saw he held a small bowl of what remained of supper and had tucked a thin blanket into the crook of his arm.
He had been so engrossed in his own thoughts, Faramir hadn't noticed Hedon milling about in the back of the cave, but was now grateful for the man's forethought. He realized the other rangers – and Éowyn as well – were completely fixated on the orcess at the entrance, while Rukhash seemed to be trying to melt into the stone wall behind her, tucking herself into the smallest possible space she could.
Catching the attention of the others, Faramir silently motioned for them to ease off, and they began to sit, one by one, their focus still trained on Rukhash. The orcess seemed completely cowed. Faramir was relieved Hedon seemed willing to be an ambassador of sorts. He had spent more time in her presence, and, despite the unease he declared earlier, seemed undoubtedly more comfortable around the orc. For all the questions he had aimed to ask her, Faramir now found himself more caught up in the novelty of her presence. He had never been so close to an unbound orc without concern for his own person. Besides, she resembled a drowned rat at the moment. It would most likely make a conversation easier if she was more comfortable.
Hedon approached and crouched in front of her, shielding Rukhash from the scrutiny of his comrades with his great size. A murmur of quiet comments, mostly in Sindarin, started behind him, but he kept his attention squarely on the orcess. She seemed to relax slightly now that she was not in direct sight of the men sharing this cave with her. Hedon handed off the blanket, which she snapped open and wrapped around her shoulders in one brisk movement, covering her head and shadowing her face in the process. She took the bowl from him. It contained a thin porridge with slices of smoked pork and boiled roots. Hedon expected her to dig into her meal with usual gusto, but the bowl remained in her lap as she stared dully at the contents.
"You should give it a try," Hedon said softly. "Uialon is fairly descent at throwing a meal together."
"Think I'm gonna be sick," she whispered.
"Rukhash," Hedon sighed, "I have not brought these people here to do you injury. I would ask you to try to be affable. Lord Faramir has many questions for you... and his decision regarding Cadoc will be based heavily on your answers."
A horrified look crossed her face. "What's he gonna do... if he don't like my answers?"
Startled, he gaped a moment, unsure of how to answer her. Hedon really didn't know what Lord Faramir would do if he decided Rukhash was some manner of threat, but he was fairly certain that would not be the case. Seeing the terror in her eyes, Hedon recalled how nervous and uncomfortable she was when she first met Edda. He should not be surprised that she would be frightened now, without Cadoc at her side and with him as the only recognizable face among so many possible enemies. He suddenly realized how much he was asking of her in this situation. What she was made him somewhat uncomfortable, and she reminded him of a time in his life that he would rather forget, but Hedon did not hate Rukhash. Though Cadoc had been his primary worry, it had not been his goal to bring undue stress upon her, especially considering she carried his friend's child. It couldn't possibly be good for the baby, for her to be so upset.
Reigning in his concern for Cadoc and the outcome of this meeting, Hedon chose his next words in hopes that they would bring her some comfort. "He will do nothing to you," Hedon whispered. "None of them will. I will not allow it. You have my word on that." He was surprised to find that he meant it. Hedon would make sure no harm would come to her while Cadoc remained unconscious. If their positions were reversed, and it was Nándra in Rukhash's place, Hedon knew that he would have been able to count on Cadoc to see to her safety. While he imagined some of his fellows might bristle at his declaration, he doubted the others could hear him above the pattering rain outside and the crackle of the fire. Anyway, they seemed engrossed in their own, speculative conversations behind him. "Besides," Hedon added, lightening his tone, "you are not without your ability to be congenial. You need only be your 'usual, charming self'."
She fixed him with a small, watery smile. "I'll just lay off them swear words, then," she whispered hoarsely.
"That might help," he agreed.
Faramir was somewhat surprised to see Hedon take a seat between the orcess and the rest of the men, but whatever they had quietly discussed amongst themselves seemed to put her more at ease. There was resigned quality to the way her eyes settled on them this time, before her gaze finally rested on Cadoc.
"He move at all why I was gone?" she asked, fixing an inquisitive look on Éowyn.
"No," she replied with a furtive glance in Faramir's direction. "I'm afraid not."
"You seem relatively unharmed," Rivalon observed from his place at Calon's side. He leveled a cool eye on the orcess. "I find that rather curious, considering the condition Cadoc is in."
Faramir had been curious about that as well, but he was attempting to approach things with slightly more tact. He supposed Rivalon's suspicions could not be avoided. The man had grown up in Henneth Annûn, and had spent the whole of his life fighting orc soldiers. Why Rivalon had agreed to this mission, and not stayed behind with others of his honor guard who were equally uncomfortable with the pretense behind it, still eluded Faramir; though his supposed Calon's influence had something to do with it. Still, this situation called for a little more delicacy.
Before Faramir could reprimand Rivalon for speaking out of turn, the orcess surprised him by answering. "They planned on keepin' me around," she said evenly. "Guess they though I might take it personal if they wailed on me too."
"Why would they want to keep you on with them?" Míron queried.
An uneasy look passed over the orcess's features before she schooled her face into a neutral expression. "Dunno," she replied. "What you think two lads would want with a girl on hand?" She set her attention on the bowl in her lap and quickly shoveled a spoonful into her mouth. That statement filled Faramir with a decided unease, and from the expressions of the men around him, they shared that discomfort.
"Did you not mention that Cadoc and you are pledged to one another?" Belegorn asked dryly.
The orcess leveled a fierce glare at him. "'Course I did!"
"Did those orcs not think, in light of such a relationship, that you would still take offense if they injured Cadoc?" Uialon reasoned. "Or do orcs not usually feel strongly for their partners?"
"I would like to know how you were able to overpower two large uruks," Calon added. "There does not seem to be much to you."
"It seems quite a misstep on their part, that they did not think to secure you," Donir observed.
"Peace!" Faramir ordered, noting the overwhelmed expression on the orcess's face. She had become more and more agitated as the questions and comments mounted. They would never hear the whole story if they bombarded her with inquiries all at once.
"Rukhash," Faramir addressed her gently, "I will admit I would also like to know what transpired here before we arrived. We have drawn conclusions based on what we have found in that cavern, but I would like to hear your account of events." He would have preferred to wait until she had eaten and calmed down a little more, but the sooner they knew the truth of things, the sooner the men would let her be. There had been too many theories floating about in her absence to sate anyone's curiosity.
The orcess fixed her gaze squarely on her lap, tucking her ears against her skull. "I begged Thraangzi ta let us go," she said quietly. Faramir was tempted to ask which of those orcs was Thraangzi, but held his tongue. He would wait until her tale was done to ask questions.
"He wouldn't listen to it," she continued. "Had his lackey tie me up in the back. Dunno why he bothered with 'at. Guess he thought I'd be less pissed if I didn't see what he was doin' ta Cadoc." She frowned miserably. "I were just lucky the bloke didn't know his knots. I wriggled outta 'em easy when he stepped out fer a bit. Grabbed a bone from the pile in 'ere an waited fer 'im ta come back. Stupid bloke didn't even think ta look fer me up on 'at ceilin'."
"You seen at little hollow in the back?" she asked, glancing at Faramir. He nodded. "Found my bow and arrows there. You know, stashed with all the other shi- stuff in 'ere. Thraangzi was too busy... doin' what 'e was doin' ta see me come outta the tunnel. I took my shot an' 'at was the end a it. Dragged Cadoc out 'ere so's he wouldn't be stuck next ta 'at stink while I patched 'im. That were three days back, thereabouts. He ain't moved much since."
Faramir regarded her for a long moment. Her story lined up well with what they had discovered in that cave, but there was one point that bothered him. "How did you know this... Thraangzi?"
A startled look came over the orcess's face. "What?"
"He is the only one of that pair that you mentioned by name," Faramir explained. "So I must assume that you were familiar with him."
She opened her mouth, but no words seemed forthcoming. The orcess dropped her gaze back down to her lap. Her response was so quiet, Faramir nearly missed it. "He were... my brother."
There was a moment of blinking silence as Faramir and his company processed that information. "Your brother..." he echoed, feeling and inkling of suspicion nag at him. "Did you know he was here?"
"What?" Rukhash's head snapped up. "No!" she said hotly. "I ain't seen him since we was sorted out in Mordor."
Faramir frowned slightly. "What do you mean 'sorted out'?"
"After Isengard flooded," she explained. "When we was called ta Mordor. They sent him ta the barracks an I went down to the Pits. After 'e Fall, I come across his old captain what told me he died on Pelennor Field. I thought he was dead!"
"Your brother would not hear your plea to spare Cadoc?" Hedon asked, an aghast look on his face. "Did he... not approve of it?"
"Nothin like 'at," she said quietly. "Him an' Cadoc had some history. Said 'at Cadoc killed his sprogs an' 'is shaû- partner. I ain't sure how that all went down." Her gaze fell on Cadoc's sleeping face. "He ain't been able ta tell me... what happened."
"You slew your brother to save Cadoc," Faramir stated quietly. He was not sure what orcs felt for their kin, but as he watched the orcess's eyes brim with water, he realized it could not have been too far what any sister would feel for her brother.
"He didn't give me no choice," she said, and it sounded like a plea. "He was gonna kill Cadoc."
She was completely distressed, on the verge of crying, and Faramir could not blame her. "Peace, Rukhash," he said, holding up his hand. "I understand that you had no other option... and I am grieved that your brother forced such action from you."
With a miserable nod, her attention was once again on the bowl of porridge in her lap. She did not seem particularly inclined to eat any of it. If her tale was a lie, then it was a clever one, and she a well accomplished actress; but if it was a lie, then Cadoc would easily dismiss it when he woke. At the moment, Faramir was strongly inclined to believe her. Whatever doubts might have lingered in his mind about her dissipated; more so than if it had been a random orc that she had slain. She had shown Cadoc great devotion, to have made such a difficult choice in his favor.
Noting the mixture of pity and sadness on the faces of the men with him – even Éowyn had a troubled look to her – Faramir decided that there had been enough inquiries for one night. Rukhash had been through enough emotional strain. Faramir decided to save what remained of his curiosity for the morning.
"Rivalon, Calon, you will take first watch," Faramir announced. Donir and Míron may have had a brief rest before this ordeal, but Faramir wanted more seasoned rangers on lookout tonight. "Belegorn and Hedon will take second watch," he added. "I think it is time that the rest of us retire for the evening. It is quite late."
"I would like to remain here, to keep an eye on Cadoc" Éowyn argued.
"I can watch 'im," the orcess interrupted in a small voice. "I been watching 'im..." She trailed off at the fierce look Éowyn fixed on her.
"Let her look after him, Éowyn," Faramir suggested. "She has done a fair job of it so far, you said so yourself, and you need your rest. You have been worrying over him since we arrived."
Though her lip firmed defiantly, his wife quietly acquiesced. She followed the other men retiring to the tents just outside and Faramir moved to join her, but was stopped briefly by Hedon. "I would remain here, my lord," he said, glancing to where Rukhash had situated herself near Cadoc. "So I am close, if she requires assistance."
Faramir was a little bemused that Hedon seemed to take it upon himself to be the orcess's personal guard. "Very well," he relented, "but you will still have second watch."
"Sir," Hedon nodded sharply and settled near Rukhash. Faramir quietly shook his head and went to take his place by his wife.
The rain had trickled to a stop overnight, leaving the sky clear and the temperature cooler in the high elevation. Deeper in the forest the early rising birds began to twitter noisily.
He had been letting his mind wander for the past hour or so, but the sound of movement within the cavern brought Belegorn to attention. The orcess was awake and milling about. Her shuffling and grunting and snuffing went on for several dozen minutes before Belegorn gave into his curiosity and peered inside. She was checking on Cadoc, laying her hand across his brow and sniffing at him delicately. She must have been satisfied with what she smelled, because she sat back on her heels with a relieved sigh. Leaning over him, she laid a light kiss on Cadoc's brow and Belegorn immediately trained his eyes back towards the mountain peaks in the distance. He was here to keep watch, not spy on the pair of them.
It was still an odd thought, Cadoc and the orc as a couple, but the story Rukhash had told the night before put many of his worries to rest. He wondered if all of her race was prone to such unwavering loyalty towards their partners, or if Cadoc's orc was an odd exception with regard to the depth of her feelings. Whatever the case, Belegorn was still interested to hear Cadoc's side of things. Her devotion to him was impressive, but Rukhash was still rough on the eyes. He was curious to know what had pushed their relationship past friendship and into this more intimate dimension.
Hedon snored quietly at the entrance to the cave and Belegorn debated waking him. The sky was beginning to lighten at the horizon, and the others would be up soon. He had a long night, considering the emotional state of his charge. Belegorn decided to give the younger ranger a few more minutes.
The orc was suddenly at his side, her yellow eyes glowing in the pre morning gloom, and the veteran ranger nearly jumped in surprise. He had not heard her approach his position. Belegorn quietly wondered if his skills were slipping. He regarded the orcess and she him for a long minute.
"Mornin'," she greeted with an easy, little nod.
"Good morning," he returned.
The orcess fixed him with a small smile. She seemed more forthcoming than the night prior, and Belegorn wondered at that a little. Perhaps a good night sleep had done her good. Her eyes seemed far less puffy and drawn than they did. Belegorn noticed she was dressed for an outing, her bow and quiver slung over her shoulder. She glanced down at Hedon where he slept. "Shouldn't he be keepin' watch with ya?" she said with a raised brow.
"Hedon watched over you as you slept for a better portion of the night," Belegorn informed her. "He stayed awake through Rivalon and Calon's watch. No doubt, Rivalon's callous comments caused him some concern for your well being."
A confused look crossed her features. "Which one were Rivalon?"
Belegorn huffed. "The older ranger that was the first to question you last night," he said. She frowned, obviously not sure who he was referring to. "He was one of the men on first watch," Belegorn clarified.
"Oh, him," she sniffed. "He sure had a starin' problem."
"He has his reasons for his mistrust," Belegorn replied.
"Don't everyone," she grumbled and rolled her eyes. He wondered if she would be so dismissive if she knew the kind of childhood the lad had. Rivalon had known orcs only as invaders his whole life. A long time resident of Henneth Annûn himself, Belegorn knew how that could color an opinion over time.
A thoughtful look came over her as she contemplated the scar that ran the length of his face. Though it may have been his own unfamiliarity with orcish features in any other context except battle, he found her expression was indiscernible, and Belegorn was curious as to what she was thinking. "Are you wondering where it came from?" he asked.
The orcess shook her head. "Nope," she said. "It's pretty obvious where it come from. I were wonderin' if yer holdin' a grudge about it."
Contemplating that for a moment, he decided, "I am not."
"Fair enough," she said with a shrug. Her attention was back on the young man dozing at the mouth of the cave. She strolled up to Hedon and poked him in the belly with the end of her bow. "Oi, you," she barked. "Quit lazin' off."
Aghast that she would be so thoughtless, Belegorn could understand why Hedon called her coarse. Considering the young man had been so mindful of her the night before, she might show him a little pity. "Let him sleep," Belegorn chastised. The orcess paid him no mind and poked Hedon again.
Startling, Hedon blinked wearily awake, looking up at the orc standing over him. "What?" he snapped.
"You owe me a buck," she informed him.
"You owe me a buck," she repeated, wrinkling her freckled nose. "There's deer all over the place 'round here, an' if I have to eat another slab a salted, dried somethin' floatin' in oats or wheat or whatever, I'm gonna chuck."
"I do not see how that is my problem," Hedon said cooly.
"Aw, common," she whined at him, stamping her foot like a petulant child. "I can't carry somethin' that big back here on my own. I ain't... you know... in the shape fer it."
"It is not even dawn yet," he argued, glaring balefully at the dark blue sky, as if it were to blame for his current situation.
"That's 'e best time ta go!" she said, throwing her hands in the air. "Quit bein' a stupid ox an come give a girl a hand with breakfast."
His face screwed up angrily, and Hedon nearly lost his temper with her. "Orc..." he growled a warning and shut his eyes in an attempt to reign himself in. She was being so childish and he had barely slept, but that was not wholly her fault. It was his own paranoia that had kept him awake. In truth, he should not be sleeping at all right now. He rubbed his face wearily before glancing into the cave where Cadoc slept. "Did you check on him? Is he well?"
A fierce look crossed her. "Don't be an idiot," the orcess grumbled. "'Course I checked on 'im. It were the first thing I done. He ain't much different 'en he were last night. Even switched out the cloths under 'im already."
Rukhash gave him a sardonic look. "You know," she hissed, "fer when he passes water."
Hedon blinked. "Oh..."
She glanced into the gloom of the cave as well, most likely seeing more than Hedon could. A thoughtful frown marred her features. "I'll wash 'em later, when the stream's warmer," she said quietly before turning back to him with a sharp glare. "So, quit bein' a lazy ox. Let's go kill somethin'." She crouched in front of him, softening her scowl to a plaintive, woebegone look. Her eyes went impossibly round and shimmering.
"Gracious Valar," Hedon swore. "What is that face about?"
Her expression did not change. If anything, Hedon could swear her eyes went even rounder. "It's my 'please' face," she explained in a tiny voice. "Please, Hedon... please come huntin' with me."
"Does that work on Cadoc?" Hedon asked, unmoved by her begging.
"Every time," she chirped and grinned a clever grin.
"Well, it isn't working on me."
She frowned slightly. "All them others is gonna be up soon," she told him seriously. "I'd like ta go on a run afore I face 'em; an' if I'm goin' on a run, 'en I might as well do somethin' useful on it; and if I'm doin' somethin' useful, it might as well be useful ta everyone. It'd make a good impression, don't ya think?"
"And you want me to go with you?" he asked, somewhat perplexed.
"Why not you?" she said with a little pout.
He could think of a million reasons. Hedon glanced towards Belegorn. He was watching their exchange with an amused expression, and Hedon was somewhat annoyed the older man seemed to find Rukhash's nudging so funny. Let her wake him up after only a few hours of sleep. "I will let them know where you have gone," the old ranger said affably. "If you want to go."
Rukhash's 'please face' was back in all of it's beseeching glory. She would most likely harangue him until he gave in, stubborn creature. With a long suffering sigh, Hedon rose to his feet. "Let me get my bow," he groused.
Clapping her hands, Rukhash gave a little, squealing cheer.
There was a part of him that wondered why the orcess felt the need to drag him into the wood at this early hour. A few months ago, he would have had the worst thought in mind, but her intensions were obviously benign. She seemed very enthusiastic about catching something. Hedon supposed his protectiveness towards her the night before had warmed Rukhash to him, which was why she invited him out with her that morning, even if she had been more pushy than congenial about it. Even as he had that thought, he recalled that she had reached out to him a few times before, and he was simply not willing to hear her.
The orcess sniffed around the base of another tree, and cheerfully motioned him to follow. Hedon was glad she was taking the lead, because his eyes had barely adjusted to the dim light of early morning. Hunting with Rukhash was like hunting with a bloodhound that could speak. They had come across several sets of deer tracks downriver from the waterfall at the base of the cliff. Hedon could tell a pair of bucks had battled there, but it was Rukhash who picked out the injured combatant.
"He'll be easier ta run down," she reasoned and Hedon could not argue. From there it was a simple matter of tracking him. The rain from the night before muffled their trek through the undergrowth, which made stealth far easier. Hedon had expected this to be a fruitless hunt, but as they tracked their quarry, and his hunting partner became more animated, sure they were catching up to their target, he had a good feeling that they would be returning with something to show for their efforts.
Every time he glanced in her direction, Rukhash was sniffing lightly at the air, her ears swiveling in all directions, listening. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Hedon found it fascinating to watch her. He doubted many men had hunted alongside an orc, and he was quietly impressed with her inherent ability. She moved with a hunter's grace, her steps even quieter than his own. Hedon did not know why he had expected her to goof off more. Maybe it was because of her antics that morning. Still, he should have expected she would be skilled at this. She had lived alone for years, and she would not have survived so long if she was in the habit of lumbering through the woods like a drunken troll.
They hiked for several miles into the dense forest. The sun had just risen over the mountains, lightening the landscape, and Hedon was relieved his range of sight would be lengthened before they came upon the buck. He yawned quietly. If only they didn't have to leave so, damnably early.
Rukhash suddenly grasped his forearm, halting him. She crouched down, her fierce eyes trained ahead. "You see 'im?" she whispered, excited.
Following her line of sight, Hedon caught the flash of dappled sunlight along the length of a deer's auburn coat. The buck had a slight limp, a minor injury he most likely incurred from his earlier quarrel. "I see him," Hedon replied as he silently slid an arrow from his quiver.
They drew their bows in unison. Nearly one hundred yards away, through the staggered trees and brush, the buck lifted his head and stared in their direction, as if trying to decipher what it was, exactly, he was looking at. "Now," Rukhash hissed and they loosed their arrows. They both struck the buck in the upper torso. He bellowed briefly, reared up and immediately collapsed to the ground.
"Ha!" Rukhash crowed and bounded to where the deer fell. Hedon followed her at a more leisurely pace. She practically skipped towards the stag and Hedon shook his head silently, not sure if he found her enthusiasm amusing or troubling.
The deer had been struck in the throat and chest, and was already dead when they came upon him. Bending and drawing her curved knife in one, smooth motion, she knelt by the deer's side, singing a little tune in her horrible tongue as she slit the knife up the length of it's abdomen.
Na ukhat thauk, rad thauk prosat!
Luguth-tuk zorru skaatub jashat!
"Why am I not surprised that gutting an animal cheers you up?" Hedon said.
"What're you on about?" she snuffed at him. "That were a good hunt! Real quick like, an' here we are with a fine breakfast." She slid her arm guards off and dug into the hole in the beast's belly. "I call the liver!"
"You are not going to eat it here, are you?" he asked, somewhat disturbed. Though he was feeling more comfortable around her lately than he ever remembered being, Hedon had no desire to see her tear into raw organs.
"No," she said guiltily, her eyes darting. "Just... claimin' it 'fore anyone else does."
Shaking his head reprovingly, Hedon unrolled the leather tarp they brought with them and slowly removed his gloves. Rukhash was humming as she pulled the guts out of the deer, and Hedon was not sure what to make of her at the moment. It had been nagging at him all morning. She seemed oddly cheerful, in light of the horrible events of the past few days, and the obvious stress she had been under.
"You don't need these tubes fer nothin do ya?" she asked absently, wriggling a length of thin, pink intestine in the air. "Don't care for this bit myself, but I know some folks like it boiled..."
"Are you all right?" Hedon asked suddenly.
She blinked at him. "Whaddya mean?" she said, cocking her head.
"You were very... troubled last night," Hedon replied. "I was honestly worried for you. I suppose I did not expect to see you so... upbeat... this morning." It was the best way he could explain it, and he had not meant it as an accusation. The shift in her mood was, simply, a little sudden; something that Hedon doubted was only a matter of her pregnancy making her exceptionally emotional.
She frowned at him. "How should I be actin' then?" she snapped. "Should I be curled in a ball, cryin' all over the place like a worthless shit?"
"I suppose that would not be terribly productive," Hedon sighed, holding up his hand in redress. He had not wanted to anger her, but he did find himself oddly concerned about her. What she had been forced to do was horrifying, and Hedon was worried for her, not just for Cadoc's sake, but for hers. As orcs went, Rukhash was really not so terrible. He actually was starting to like her a little, if he was completely honest with himself. When she wasn't cursing up a storm or throwing a fit, she could be fairly enjoyable to be around.
Rukhash stared down at her bloodied hands, swallowing anxiously. Her expression took on the same, fretful look of the night before. "Just fer a minute, I just don't wanna think about it," she whispered. "I'm so mad at 'im, Hedon."
Hedon frowned at that. "Cadoc or your brother?" he asked quietly.
"Both," she hissed. "I'm mad at both of 'em. I'm mad at Thraangzi fer bein' a stubborn ass 'at won't listen ta reason, an' I'm mad at Cadoc 'cause... 'cause I didn't think he could do somethin' like 'at. Not him. I should've fig'red he could, but I just didn't think he would. I... I thought he were better than it." Her bottom lip began to tremble, and Hedon was sorry he brought it up. This was obviously, understandably, something she did not want to dwell on.
"Rukhash," Hedon said gently, "I am not, exactly, sure what the circumstances were surrounding the incident involving Thraangzi and Cadoc, but I can assure you that Cadoc has never raised his sword out of amusement or malice. He finds no joy in killing. He has spent his life defending his homeland. Whether that makes what he did better or justified, I cannot say, but I do feel that there is a difference when it comes to one's motive behind killing."
"Thraangzi were a good brother to me," she said emphatically. "He saved me from the flood. He always played with me when most a my other older brothers were blowin' me off. He never made fun a my feet." Rukhash looked at Hedon miserably. "Everyone always made fun of my goblin feet."
Hedon glanced briefly at her naked, clawed toes before looking back to her tear streaked face. "I didn't wanna do it, Hedon," she croaked. "I didn't wanna have ta kill 'im, but he just couldn't let go a it, an' I can't blame 'im fer it! Cadoc done the same thing ta him 'at Baladnor done ta me. But I couldn't do no different. I couldn't let 'im kill Cadoc. I feel like I failed 'im; like I got a choice an' he didn't." Her breath hitched of it's own accord, and Rukhash screwed up her face as she attempted to reign in her emotion.
Taking a deep breath, Hedon searched for something to say. He had never been very good at comforting people. "I would be a liar if I did not say that I am personally happy that you made the choice that you did," he admitted. "Cadoc is a good person, and he cares very deeply for you. Knowing you has put many things into a different light for him, regarding your people."
"And I know it is the same for you," Hedon continued. "I know that Baladnor would have never been cured if not for Cadoc's influence on you. Am I wrong to assume that?" Rukhash shook her head. "Perhaps in time, with the proper influences, it may have been the same for your brother, and he may have been able to see past his rage, but you cannot consider yourself wholly responsible for changing him or not changing him. He neither gave you the chance or the time to do so."
"I can't be mad at 'im fer bein' pissed Hedon," she said miserably. "I really can't. Whatever yer folk might've thought of 'im, I know 'e musta been a good dad, to care so much about his lads. An' it takes a certain type, ta call someone yer shaûk. That don't come easy fer my folk, givin' up so much a yerself fer someone else. I know I done what I had ta, Hedon, I'da never let anything happen ta Cadoc, cause he's my shaûk, an' I ain't losin' another one... but it just... hurts."
"I know," Hedon said quietly, clasping her shoulder. "But you cannot blame yourself for your brother's actions, Rukhash. Thraangzi's death and Cadoc's condition are not your fault. It is as you said, you had no choice."
"I killed my fuckin' brother, Hedon." she hiccuped. "It'd be different if he were one a the bunch 'at I didn't like – 'en he'd just be some bleedin' orc, buggerin' me an' Cadoc – but he were one a my favorites. I were real fond a 'im when I was small, and 'e were always real fond a me. He were good ta me when I was little."
"It was a miserable position you were put in, Rukhash." Hedon told her. "I am hesitant to condemn your brother, since I do not know him, but it was cruel of him to do this to you. He put his own vengeance before your feelings and your safety. For whatever he felt towards Cadoc, even if it was completely justified, it was not fair for him to force his younger sister into such a horrible confrontation. He may have cared for you, but what good is that care if he could do something like this to you?"
Hedon took a shuddering breath. "My father, for as awful a man as he was, I admired him when I was a boy... He always kept me by his side, but that it put me in many situations that were very frightening and very dangerous. Looking back now, I can see how selfish he was to force me into the position that he did."
"Selfish people give you very few choices," he said grimly. "I do not blame you for being angry with your brother..." Hedon considered Cadoc's own role in things and added, "And I suppose I can understand why you are mad at Cadoc as well, for the part he played, but certainly he has more than suffered for whatever crime he has committed."
"I wish he'd wake up," Rukhash whispered. She had calmed considerably, but silent tears sill rolled down her dark cheeks. Pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket, Hedon handed it to her so she could wipe her face.
"I wish he would wake up as well," Hedon admitted.
She regarded him quietly. "You ever miss 'im, yer dad? Ain't you ever mad 'at things went the way they did?"
"Sometimes," Hedon admitted, "but he brought such consequences upon himself. He was a cruel man to anyone aside from me, and ruthless, and I was honored that I was one of the few on his good side." Hedon paused, remembering darker times. "I hated the rangers that arrested him," he whispered. "The man I am now cannot abide the man he was, but at the time, all I knew was that I was parted from him. He loved me in his own, dark way, I suppose, but he was not a good person."
"You don't think, maybe he coulda been somethin' different?" she asked.
"Perhaps," Hedon said. "or perhaps not. It is often hard for someone who has lived in such violence their whole lives to see things in a new light." He contemplated the orcess in front of him and amended, "Not impossible, mind you, but very, very difficult."
With a shuddering sigh, she rallied a brighter expression. "We should get back," she said with a watery grin. "They're gonna think I'm out here strippin' yer bones 'r somethin'."
Realizing she wanted to change the subject, Hedon nodded quietly. "I suppose you're right," he said. "You know," he continued with a small smile, "Rivalon will be very disappointed that you did not prove him correct in his assumptions about you."
Rolling her eyes, Rukhash smirked at him knowingly. "I got a way a doin' that," she said.
"So you do," he acknowledged.
Rolling to her feet, she grabbed the deer by the ankles started to drag it towards the tarp. Hedon took the other set of hooves, and in short order, they had it rolled up and hefted on his back. As they started towards camp, Rukhash gave him a light thump on the arm.
"Oi, ox, thanks fer comin' huntin' with me," she said quietly.
"Any time, orc."
Na ukhat thauk, rad thauk prosat!
Luguth-tuk zorru skaatub jashat!
(SV) In goes the knife, now it cuts!
Through the stomach, out come the guts!