Tara sat on the crumbling stone wall, sucking her teeth in dismay. Pickings were slim since the city of Osgiliath had come under fierce attack. The prosperous merchants and their over-stuffed wives had packed their gear up and high-tailed to Minas Tirith, leaving behind the foolish, the ruthless, and the dirt poor who had not even grey stale bread to steal. Almost everything worth carrying off had been taken by the latest band of Orcs, but a fresh influx of soldiers might just tip the balance in Tara's favor. Night and day were reversed for the people of Osgiliath: the Orcs couldn't attack in the daylight, and so the soldiers were drunk in the morning and on alert nightfall.

It was morning now, and Tara's sharp grey eyes followed a whey-faced young warrior with a pouch that looked suspiciously full of bronze coins. The green young soldier was trolling the poor districts looking for a whore. Tara slipped off the wall and stalked him in the shadows of half-burnt row houses, hoping to catch him before some feathered and painted wench did. Tara'd had nothing to eat since the night before last: as a known criminal, she didn't qualify for a grain dole. Curse you, Da, she thought bitterly. Her father, who was surely born drunk, had trained up his only child as a pickpocket. Lord Denethor had no mercy for thieves. Tara's Da's recent death meant nothing more than that Tara's earnings went to herself rather than his booze, and her face was no longer marred by the bruises he'd paid her out with when she kept a coin for herself.

"Eh, Tara, already on the take?"

Tara flew around furiously, her long black braid snapping like a whip. "Could you say it any louder, Gwenna?" she demanded, staring the old madam down.

Gwenna picked her teeth with a chicken bone and shrugged her fleshy bare shoulders. "When will you learn, child? If you want to put food in your belly, you'll have to open your legs. You're no better than any of us, and thieving doesn't seem to be working out so well in these black times. If you leave it much longer you'll be too damned skinny to whore!"

Tara cringed. "All I wanted to know of Men, my Da taught me. As soon as one sticks me, I'll surely stick him back." She patted the long dagger strapped to her thigh.

Gwenna laughed, remembering Tara's sot father, once a frequent customer before the booze claimed his manhood. She couldn't blame the girl a bit, though privately Gwenna thought Tara would come around in time. "Go on, dearie, before he gets away. And then come back if you like, we've got a little stale bread and moldy cheese you're welcome to."

"I won't have to fuck you for it, will I?" Tara asked, grinning wryly.

"First one's free for you, my lovely!" Gwenna cackled, and then the madam waived the girl off.

"Move out! Go! Go! Get your shitty arses to the parade ground! Lucky day for you worthless little bitches!"

Ushatar, the fastest, newest addition to Gharsh-il's platoon, didn't have to be told twice. He snatched his weapons from the snaga commissar, giving him a playful cuff about the ears. "I'll bring you back a scalp for your collection, you miserable little shit!"

"Make it a yellow one," the commissar qualified flatly, shaking his head. What he wouldn't give to go along on the raid! Miserable was right! Lulled to Isengard with promises of pits full of white-skinned women for the taking and endless battle, the commissar was lucky if he caught a whiff of fresh air, let alone went off to battle. And as far as females… Well, once the first Uruks were born, those enormous devils were the only ones allowed to have their fun with the captives. The commissar would fuck a cat quick if he could find one.

"Yellow like the piss you gargle!" Ushatar laughed, running up the rickety wooden staircase. Gharsh-il's booming voice poured down through the tunnels of Isengard. The stern Uruk himself stood with meaty fists on hips at in the glaring sunlight above. Ushatar stiffened his back and thumped his chest a bit too earnestly as he approached the commander, winning him a ringing smack on the back of his head.

"No more of your foolishness, dungpile!" Gharsh-il roared. "Try not to break my fucking heart by dying, Ushatar!"

"Yes sir!" Ushatar barked smartly, shoving his helmet on his still humming head. He filed in with the other Uruk-hai, shoulder to shoulder in a legion of immense, heavily muscled killing machines.

"Wipe that stupid grin off your face before Sharku comes out," his neighbor—an Uruk with a long scar and a hole where his nose should be—muttered irritably. "Fucking newborn. Gonna ruin it for the rest of us."

"No grinning on parade. Got it. How about when I'm killing, I get to grin then?"

"Grin when we're waist deep in guts and man-flesh, youngling, and not a moment before. Recon says they've reinforced the city with soldiers from all over Gondor."

"But it's daytime!" Ushatar boasted. "And they've never seen the likes of us yet!"

"Shut your meat hole: the Master comes."

Ushatar knew what this meant already: shut up, stand tall, and don't ever look him in the face. Gharsh-il was good for a rise, and he wouldn't whip you unless you fucked up and got weak or too stupid. Sharku would set a pack of Uruks on him to rip his flesh from his bones. Ushatar had seen it done five days after he opened his eyes.

The wizard appeared from nowhere, it seemed. Hardly anything frightened Ushatar, but the wizard was one of them. Pale and cold and distant, as if most of his mind was always elsewhere, and yet intently keen when he wished to be, Saruman walked along the ranks of his Fighting Uruk-hai and allowed himself a small smile. A little closer to perfection, he thought. But not quite yet.

"Warriors!" Saruman called, and Ushatar joined in the roaring reply. Saruman offered a smile now, which made Ushatar supremely content though he couldn't for anything explain why. "Today we strike a blow to the heart of Gondor! Run to the city of Osgiliath and fall like raptors on the white-faces! Torture, kill, taste the flesh of Men!"

A resounding roar at that. Ushatar's mouth moistened in a sudden, powerful desire. But again, the wizard held up his hand.

"You will kill the men, and the children, but take their women and do what you will with them, and those who survive it…" Saruman paused and allowed for the hooting and cackling of his troops. "Those who survive, bring them to Isengard. Those of you who win glory in battle shall have your fill of these captives! To Osgiliath!"

Ushatar let out another bellowing roar. He was sure he could taste blood already. The troops turned to the southeast in lockstep, ready to march out. But Sharku murmured to Gharsh-il, "Make certain you bring no less than thirty females back. Bring two for yourself."

The Uruk commander's throat rumbled with anticipated desire. He nodded affirmatively, then turned to parallel his troops and began to run. "Go! Run! Run, you swine-fuckers, or I'll tear every last one of you to pieces!"