The first flicker of consciousness triggered a great gasp, sucking in a miasma of choking foulness. The lack of air was terrifying, triggering a gut reaction to rip and dig and pull… to escape. All thought was bent on the destruction of the viscous suffocating prison.

Something cool and dry streamed through, giving a hope mixed with a wild terror. There was brightness beyond it, it was close, a desperate tear away—

The Uruk-hai sucked lung-clearing air, gagging on it until the method of taking it in was quickly mastered. Waves of relief rushed in along with lung-filling oxygen.

Then another terror: clawed hands—a form that had no meaning but invasion and danger—sped forward and grabbed. It made sounds that were somehow familiar, and the Uruk responded by attaching to the helper. Arms became understood, and legs quickly after. The Uruk stood, dripping, eyes caught on the beautiful warm glow of a fire. Cool air kissed playfully.

The clawed hand snatched again, turning the Uruk's face, a sharply violating gesture that triggered a sudden, high growl. Glowing blue eyes widened and the helper made sounds: curious, non-threatening, excited sounds.

There was another creature in the room, a dingy sort of brightness radiating from him that hurt the Uruk's eyes and head enough to cause a deep, deep dread.

I am in the middle, the Uruk thought, the first thought. Between the helper and the bright hurting one. The Uruk understood suddenly that it owed obedience to the bright hurting one.

"We will test it," the Master intoned, sucking the heat from the fire with his voice. Sucking courage as well. The Uruk shuddered without knowing why.

"If it is successful—summon the Commander with his bullwhip, we shall give this one a bit of a chance—then brand it with the number and letter: One F, for my first female Uruk. Let us hope it proves useful."

There was no reason not to follow when called. Nothing terrible had happened since the escape and the clawed touches—but I have those too, it must be all right—even if the Master was terrifying. The violence of birth and the will of the wizard set off a long train of thoughts, mostly observations: It was cold and dark, a long winding tunnel lit by torches. She understood what things were, had names for them suddenly, but hadn't yet learned what these things meant. As they walked, a muffled loudness came through the walls, a great bellowing. There was a cut in the wall around the last corner, where the floor was slick with water and slime.

The helper gave a shove to the female's back. "Get in, time to wash up."

She obeyed instinctively, finding out that washing up meant the toss of a few lukewarm buckets-full of wetness. The helper then tossed a long black tunic to the female, made a tugging motion around his head and said, "Put it on, little hole on top." He jerked his finger to the ceiling. Sopping wet, she pulled it on, and then they brought her along again. She didn't look at the Master at all: to do so brought that ringing back between her ears, and that was better off avoided. Instead, from the corners of her bright blue eyes, she watched the helper: dark-skinned and scrawny, but with claws and fangs and a long club in one hand.

Suddenly there were more of them, all looking like the helper, all afraid of the Master like her: but they leered at her, and they were not so afraid that they couldn't snicker and hiss. She didn't understand why they would, and it made her angry. Before she'd time to think of her anger—and that these cruel ones were small enough to bat out of sight with one blow of her hand—she saw that they stood before a great gate of black shining bars. One of the little hissing ones cackled harder, pulling back the gate.

"You will go in," the Master commanded, directing all of his will at her.

I don't want to! She recoiled in dread, sensing death and misery, which were nonetheless terrifying for being abstract feelings rather than concrete ideas. The floor of this new, brightly lit place was slicked and stained with a black that smelled intimately familiar.

The horrid ringing followed her rebellious thought, and many clawed hands gave a shove. She was in, and the gate slammed hard behind her. A lock spun as she turned around, seeing gashed up walls, torches, and at the back of the room another door, this one solid metal. The Master crowed with dozens of new smirking, fanged faces, and the female felt their animosity and excitement. She backed against the wall in a panic, understanding something horrific was coming, and it was their pleasure to watch it…

There was a pounding at the door, and soon it began to creak open. The female Uruk cornered herself, her entire body bristling. The first shot of adrenaline warmed her blood and she decided that whatever happened, whatever came through that door, if it touched her she would bat it away. She looked quickly at the sharp claws on her fingers, and wondered what they'd do to skin. Surely she was strong: not bigger than Master, but beside him the biggest thing she'd seen so far.

Then the door swung hard, banging against the wall. A giant appeared in its place, a grey-skinned giant with long, thick black hair, a snub nose, and hard yellow eyes. In his great clawed hand was a rod with many leather straps, each one beaded with iron. Bullwhip, she thought. So this was the Commander. A creature of great power and authority, of shining, rippling muscles and a sneering lip. The Commander ran his eyes over the female and a low rumble came from his chest, a rumble of pleasure. The female was at once terrified and deeply reassured: her presence seemed to please him.

Then the Master's cold voice blasted into the pen, and even this fine Commander seemed to diminish. "She is to be tested only. No more. Do you understand me?"

"No fucking," the Commander rumbled, licking his lips.

Master made a little hiss of disdain. "Yes… no breeding, not until she is proven. Now… send her opponent in."

The Commander turned to the door. "You! Come!"

The female—sure that an opponent was a very bad thing—braced herself a moment before another like the Commander, brand new and still bleeding from his first fight, ran into the pen, eyes wild, reeking of fear and fury both.

But the moment the male saw her, smelled her, he stopped mid-flight. His wild eyes went wide now, his head tilted to the side. Awestruck, the male Uruk circled the female, his face no longer terrifying. His lips spread into a smile, and the female gasped relief.

Suddenly a pain like none yet felt sheered through the female's consciousness, and the male roared in agony. The female didn't know what was happening to her, only that suddenly she was furious, and it seemed the only way to stop the hurt was to rip and bite and tear the one before her. She cupped her hands over her ears in confusion, trying to blot it out, not knowing that the Master's cold gaze had settled on the both of them with all of his cruel power. In the background the Commander was barking, "Fight! Fight! Fight!"

The female screamed in rage and pain, and it triggered the male. His own message from the Master was a touch more complicated, and now not only was he mad for blood, he was aroused beyond measure. He rushed for the female, seizing her about the shoulders, throwing her easily to the ground.

Hardly in control of herself at all anymore, she leaped up with cat-like agility and threw all of her weight into the male. He'd underestimated her, and she was able to knock him to the ground. They tangled into a ball, biting and clawing, and the female took a punch to the head that made lights pop behind her eyes. The male was mad with lust, so mad that his entire consciousness was now focused on getting inside. But Commander Gharsh-il never had time to whip the male off of her. The female grabbed her attacker's head and gave it a hard twist, and the Uruk's neck broke instantly. He fell on top of her limply, never to move again.

The Master's clapping penetrated the painful, bloody fog in the female's mind. She became aware of pain on her arms and chest, where the other's claws had torn her flesh. She smelled thick blood in the air, hers and his both. Disgusted and terrified, the female kicked her dead assailant off, only to remember the smile he'd first offered her. She covered her face with her hands and screamed in sorrow, and then horror for the life she knew now as hers.

"Most satisfactory…" the Master was saying. "But if it does not shut up, whip it."

Gharsh-il stepped forward and snapped his whip, and one sting on her thigh was enough. The female swallowed her agony, then turned furious eyes on her Master.

His cold, thin mouth made the same expression as the dead Uruk had—a smile—but there was no friendliness, no promise of warmth in it like was in the face of the one she'd killed. "Very good. Tell me, Gazog, what shall we name her?"

"Mmm… Never named a female before!" the little Orc grumbled. He stared at the female, and she wanted to run to the bars and rip his eyes out. How dare they amuse themselves with her fear and pain and rage? "Look at those eyes! Likely from Mama's side, eh? So blue! Aha, there it is… Ulumi."

"Ulumi," the Master repeated. "Good enough. Take her away now. Brand her, feed her, and send her to her rest. She will need all her strength soon, I think. And if she proves worthwhile, we shall save ourselves a good bit of trouble in building our army."