"Oh no, oh no!" Shari cried, grabbing Daumani's hand in terror. The sound of hoof-beats was unmistakable, hoof-beats caused by a large enough group of riders to bounce pebbles on the floor of the cave and send small rocks rolling down the walls.
Daumani pulled a long knife from her belt, clinging to it like it was a log in raging whitewater, the only thing to keep her afloat. Gadhaal had trained most of the Orc females in rudimentary fighting skills, but now the former Durlob sat with empty eyes, rocking and moaning slightly, whispering of horses and swords. All eyes were on Shari, who'd earlier insisted they split into only two of the four caves, perilously close together. She'd been confident before, grinning as if triumph was a foregone conclusion, giving Saalcaf her bare throat and tugging on his mail shirt before the Durub rode off to battle. Now she was as a terrified child, shifting her weight from foot to foot and whimpering in terror.
"Nemlii," Tara hissed, horrified. If the Men had come, did that mean…? She wouldn't think of it, not yet, but Tara felt certain she'd lose her mind as well if Ushatar was dead, Orc-bonded or not. Still: she wouldn't think of it yet. "Nemlii… there were little holes in the back. Might any of them be big enough to get through? Might they lead to deeper caverns?"
"Possible," Nemlii said quickly, her grandson in her arms. "But there are so many of us, and likely some are too big to fit through the passage…"
"Better than all of us being cut down!" Tara replied, hugging Ilzin tightly to her chest. The baby seemed to pick up on the mood of terror, like most of the dagu, clinging to her mother in frozen silence, her steely eyes wide.
"Yes, Nemlii, look!" Shari insisted loudly.
"Here," Nemlii said, passing the little Orc to Daumani.
Tara and Nemlii hustled to the back of the cave. The Orcesses were glad to see any sign of a plan, and they cleared the way, clutching their babies and denying their whimpers for the sakes of the dagu. They were all ready to fight—they'd been schooled under Gadhaal—but the old Durlob was gone into another existence and the new one wouldn't or couldn't rally the Orcesses to fight.
A lone pair of hoof-beats suddenly thumped the ground near the small mouth of the cave. A high tark's voice bounced under the rocks: "Check these caves! That one by the clump of great ferns first!"
Orcesses to whom the foreign words were mindless chatter swooned silently, closing their eyes and holding their babies to their chests. Many of the mature females, in their prime, stood and slipped forward, ready to give their lives and hopefully take a few on principle. But Nemlii's plump small hand clenched to an excited fist and she shimmied her top half out of the hole in the low ceiling. Her blue-green eyes were bright. "I think we've got it!"
"They are outside," Tara said anxiously. Her heart was pounding in her ears. All around her, the warm frightened bodies of the people who had accepted her, who Tara'd put a salvaged life together around. But the Men were going to the other cave first, where Ranash was with many old, white-haired Orcesses. "Dammit!" Tara hissed, shaking her head. She was sure she could feel her heart breaking. At the back of her mind, she wondered if Ushatar was gone. And how many more moments would she have with Ilzin?
"Everyone!" Tara hissed. "Pass it on, there's a hiding place! But we must go quickly, all in one line, for it's just a little door in the rock."
Soft murmurs ran through the crowd, nods of approval, a very few relieved faces. Most were just glad to do something, no matter how futile it seemed, considering how close the enemy was.
Tara choked down tears, and held her beloved Uruk baby up over her head. She brought Ilzin close, kissed her pudgy grey cheeks, memorized the sharp, alert look of her baby's beautiful raptor gaze. "I love you Ilzin," Tara whispered, and then she turned to a meek Shari. "Hold Ilzin and follow me."
"Where are we going?" Shari cried softly, taking Ilzin in her arms and cuddling her tightly.
"We're going to buy time for them," Tara said, jerking her chin at the Orcesses swiftly and silently falling into line, climbing one by one though the tight crevice.
Shari, muting her terror humbly, nodded her head. "They will kill us."
"Not quite yet," Tara said, a fatalistic smile flashing across her face. "Not if I run out to them alone."
"Tara! They will take you for sure! Your… your neck alone… What will you do?"
"I haven't figured that out yet," Tara said, renouncing the quiver in her voice. "If I scream, take her as far back as you can go. If the killing starts—" Now Tara's voice broke to a quick, soft, heart tearing sob, and she nodded her head. "You know what. Quick, Shari. I don't want her knowing nothing about it."
Shari's eyes couldn't tear, but she leaned over and kissed Tara on the cheek. Tara pressed her other cheek to Ilzin's soft head with wild tenderness, and then broke away.
She heard the horses—sounded like they came to a halt—and stirrups clanging. She heard booted feet hitting the ground. I can't believe I'm doing this! Tara thought, and then she closed her eyes and ducked out of the cave, emerging in the sunlight.
Their attention was towards the fern patch, so Tara slipped as far from the cave as she could quickly. Then she shouted, "Hi! Rangers! O'er here!"
They turned all at once just feet from the cave of older Orcesses, their greenish brown cloaks snapping. There was a handful of knights among them, in shining silver and black. Their leader had a thin white tree of mithrial on his shiny black cuirass. The Rangers were perplexed by the sight of a beautiful, oddly enchanted-looking young woman appearing from the mountain. They came towards her in astonishment, all sorts of cries of miss, are you hurt? lost? on their lips.
The knight with the mithrial stared at her with wide blue eyes, a fair young face shining with astonishment and joy. "Tara! By the Grace of the Valar, Tara from Osgiliath!"
It was Darian.
"You know this woman?" the lead Ranger asked, astonished. But now that he looked, her quirky—yet strangely beautiful, in some perfect imperfect way—features were right, her coloring typical of a woman of Gondor.
Tara stood stock still, heart pounding. She realized belatedly that the Men couldn't smell her fear, and she put on a braver face. Do I have a chance? Or will he react in disgust?
"I know her!" Darian said, grinning in bemusement and wonder. He passed the reins of his bay charger to his subordinate and came forward, armor gleaming in the sun. He seemed much older now, or rather much more worn. There was stubble shadowing his jaw and sun-lines around eyes that new battle. "What in the world are you doing here? I thought you were lost for sure!"
Tara swallowed, stalling to find her voice. "You've changed," she observed. "You're a good deal graver now, my lord."
"My lord!" Darian laughed. "Tara! How incredible. But tell me, how are you here? There is a battle not so far off! You're lucky we found you! Tara—What has happened? Why tears? Has someone harmed you?"
Tara was trying to speak, though terror gripped her throat. There would be only one chance.
"I must beg your mercy, Darian," Tara said quietly, her tears running free.
"For myself," she whispered, biting her lips, her knees gone weak. "Myself… and my family. A very large family…"
"By Eru, Tara, what happened to your neck? And what in the world are you talking about?" Darian asked, a moment away from making sense of it himself. There was nothing left to do.
"Please, Darian, will you do something for me?"
"Anything! But I grow bewildered by the moment with you, a feeling I remember well now!" Darian smiled richly.
Tara tried to smile; it came as a curl of the corner of her lips through her tears. "I want to show you someone, but you must swear not to hurt her. Or anyone. And… and your Men must swear as well."
"I command them," Darian said, frowning a little. "And I would hurt no lass!"
"All right, then," Tara said. She backed away, and then turned and walked to the cave. "Shari! Bring me Ilzin!"
Shari appeared behind the lip of the cave in moments, squatting in the shadows, Ilzin in her dark slim arms. "They're not up yet! Is there hope?"
"I don't know," Tara said honestly, taking her baby. She cuddled Ilzin closely, nothing peeking above her beautiful white fox fur wrap but her thick, straight black hair. She returned to Darian.
"The night Osgiliath was sacked, I was abducted by the Wizard of Isengard's soldiers. The Wizard wanted me imprisoned, with other women." Tara caught her breath—and the look of comprehension and revulsion suddenly shadowing Darian's face. "The Wizard's soldiers were his slaves. One of those slaves helped me escape, and we were given shelter by the clan of his ancestors' people. We fell in love, and all we want is to live in peace. All I want is to raise my daughter with my new family, in peace."
"Your daughter?" Darian breathed, eyes training again to the richly swathed bundle in her arms, this time lingering there rather than on the young woman's lovely face. "I didn't know you had a daughter!"
Tara drew her breath, and brought Ilzin away from her chest, cradling the bright little baby in her arms. Ilzin squealed with joy for the fresh air and new sights. "Darian, this is my baby girl Ilzin."
His eyes were wide, but she didn't wait for him to digest it. "I know there is a battle, my heart is in it. My husband fights your soldiers, and the only reason why is because we were attacked. My best friend—a young mother—" Tara shook her head, fighting not to weep, "She was cut to pieces by soldiers of Gondor. Her baby is but four moons old, and her mate has lost his mind in grief. She'd done nothing at all to anyone besides laugh and smile and love! And so that it didn't happen again the Orcs fought back. We've had to leave our home—my home now, Darian, with folks I love—and all we want is to get to a safe place, far away from those why wish us harm for no reason at all. Please, Darian… I beg you, I will get on my knees and beg you, won't you please help me and my family?"
Tara shook the tears out of her eyes, trembling with fear and hope. Lord Darian, passing though all the emotions of shock, horror, confusion, and empathy, turned his back on Tara, his hand held hard on his hip.
"Achasdring," Darian called suddenly, cold anger in his voice. One of the Rangers stepped forward, eyeing Tara with grim dark eyes. Darian waved his hand towards Tara and said, "This woman is a traitor. Take her into custody, and the imp-spawn as well."
"What!?" Tara screamed. "No! No! Darian, please!"
Five more Rangers came. The one called Achasdring grabbed Tara around her waist. Another seized the baby with hard hands, tearing her away from her mother. Ilzin squalled in protest, and Tara went wild with anger. But no matter how she fought and cursed and screamed, her hands were bound and she was thrown roughly over the back of a horse, the pommel of the saddle digging into her belly. The Ranger mounted behind her and they galloped off, Tara's wail of despair echoing over the mountain.