Halla nearly shot up on waking, but she grit her teeth and dug her nails into her palms, and most of all, refused to cry. There was some commotion in the front of the cave, sudden shouting in a language she still hadn't come to understand. For the first time since Luka's birth, fear seized her. "Maukurz! Maukurz!"
In a moment, a figure shadowed the sheet, then slipped around, and an Orc the color of moonlight stared at her in wonder. Halla realized abruptly it was the Orcess who'd come in that afternoon. The female's bright red eyes terrified her. The Uruk-hai had something of Men in their faces, and of course they were her family now, but this female was purely... deadly. Foreign. Halla was terrified.
Quick as a cat, the Orcess jumped to a squat at Halla's side. Her head tilted as Halla grabbed Luka close. It seemed very much as if this Orcess enjoyed Halla's fear.
But then she said, as if speaking to a friend, or an ally, "Yer buck's got shot. Only in the leg, don't worry-"
"I'll be right there, Halla..." he growled. Then he grunted, and Halla smelled sizzling flesh.
Furious with her helplessness, Halla demanded of the Orcess, "What happened?"
"White-skins like you happened. He was huntin' deer, but he got hisself a better meal..."
"Uliima!" Maukurz roared, the sound full of the release of whatever pain he felt from the wound and the fire.
The Orcess shrugged in innocence. She even made a little grimace. "Ooh... S'pose he didn't want yuh knowin! Cute sprog, there! Busted yuh up somethin' good, did he? My first was a bit like that..."
"Are we in danger?" Halla demanded, refusing to think of Maukurz killing-and eating?-a Man.
"No!" Maukurz said, coming around the sheet, baring his fangs at Uliima. "Watch yourself, Orcess!"
Uliima's nostrils flared, and she ran the scent over her tongue, understanding instantly that the half-breed was fully bonded to this injured tark. Uliima fell back onto her haunches and said, "Well. That there ain't somethin I ever expected."
"Maukurz, what is going on?" Halla pleaded. Uliima hadn't lied; not only was there a fresh wound on his strong thigh, burned shut... there was also red blood all over his chest, and staining the hide kilt she'd made him.
He swallowed hard, and came to sit beside Halla. He took her trembling hand and kissed it, then glanced to Uliima. The Orcess left them, and Maukurz told Halla, "Don't get upset now. You 'member those Gondor Men? Looks like they got Dunland scoutin' for 'em now. Don't mean they found us-"
"They shot you," Halla said, the damned tears flooding her eyes again.
"Yeah, li'l bit. But I took care of 'em."
Halla shook her head in dismay; that they were threatened... that he'd killed Men again. Somehow, she had believed that part of his life was over. It was foolish; she should be glad that those who'd do them harm were dead. She pushed the thought of those Men's fate as far from her as she could, then ran trembling fingers over his thigh. "Does it hurt badly?"
A grin twitched up the corner of his mouth, and he cupped his hand over hers. "You kidding me?"
She nodded, glad for his strength. "Then... what are we to do? If they're looking for us? I... I should try to get up..."
She expected him to deny the threat again, at least for her sake; it was all the more frightening when a great sigh sagged his powerful body. "You can't get up. I don't know what we're to do, ambal-izub. We'll be talkin it over soon..."
Maukurz's words trailed off, his eyes closing briefly at the pitched scent of her fear. An image came to him, of Men dragging Halla away, Men killing Baby...
"Find Edwyn," Halla said suddenly, as her mate bristled with anger. "You have to go find Edwyn, just as soon as it's full dark."
Maukurz tilted his head. "What could he do? His sword would be of use, but we're still badly outnumbered. And it's unlikely he'd take up arms against his own kind anyway..."
"I don't know," Halla breathed. Luka whimpered as he woke, found her breast, and nursed himself back to sleep. Finally, her tears fell like rain, and she clutched the baby close. "It's something... Maukurz..."
He pressed his palm to her cheek, and bent to kiss her brow. "All right. I'll find Edwyn. You just rest..."
"Take that damned sheet down," Halla said, struggling to control her voice. "I want to be a part of things, even if I can't get up. Whatever is going to happen, I will be a part of it."
"Of course," he murmured. The pain of his wound couldn't break him, but her anguished eyes stabbed him right in the heart.
"Maukurz..." Halla dropped her voice to a whisper, "It was a mistake, wasn't it? To let those females come here?"
"Done is done," he breathed heavily. "Uliima will be a help, anyway. If it come to a fight. I don't think her intentions are bad... At the very least, I understand her. The other one, that Dunlending..."
"Shatauz must be beside himself, if you're doubting Bregun." Halla didn't want to think any further than that. For what would they do, if Bregun was a threat? Not release her... Halla could not consider it.
"I didn't know what to do, Halla. I only want... to build a life... a Clan, I guess. I..." Maukurz groaned softly. "I hope I haven't undone us. Try to talk to the woman, see what she's about. I'll go find Edwyn. Then we'll decide what we're to do."
Maukurz bent, brushed his tightly clamped lips lightly over hers. Not at all his usual kiss, and Halla's stomach flipped as he stood, wondering if Uliima had told the truth. Surely, Maukurz would not eat a man, even an enemy? She should have asked him, gotten it all out in the open, but she found she didn't dare. Maukurz took one side of the sheet down then, and Halla watched as the Uruk-hai and the Orcess went out into the darkness, and she was left alone with Bregun.
The red-haired woman was clutching Shatauz's furs around her pitiously, but Halla was not moved to pity her.
"What have you done?" Halla demanded.
Bregun clutched at her throat. Turned wide, dark eyes on her. "I've done nothing! I only wanted to get away! Maybe I shouldn't have said anything... about her... But what was I to do? She is female. They were tormenting her!"
"So why didn't you tell the truth, about how many were guarding her? You said it would be no great matter, to free her! You must know... The Uruk-hai are capable of great violence, but they rarely lie. And I swear, if you have endangered us... I will not speak for you, when the time comes to decide your fate! Shatauz welcomed you with open arms!"
You will break his heart, Halla thought, and she had to turn away from Bregun, because the fury and the pain in her own heart was too great.
"I like Shatauz," Bregun said quietly. "All I ever wanted was a Man... a mate... who would be strong, and yet careful at the same time. Who would... Oh, I suppose you couldn't understand! You don't know what it is to be trapped..."
Don't I? Halla shook her head. "Not good enough, Bregun. Whatever pain you've known, that does not give you the right to inflict it on others. So whatever you know, I suggest you tell me now!"
"I didn't come here for any reason except to escape. I don't know how women in Rohan are treated, but where I come from, we are property. You all were stolen off to Isengard; we were sold. My own sister was sold to breed Uruks; I was traded to a brutal man, to be his fourth wife, and it would be nothing to him to beat me to death and trade some venison and hides for a new, fresh girl. But I have seen these Uruks... I have seen them vicious, yes... But I have also seen them devoted. So I wanted that. And I thought that helping to rescue the Orcess would... make me trusted. I swear to you, as far as I knew, she would only be guarded by two. But it is true that Men from Gondor came lately, as they came to other tribes, to seek aid for their mission."
"Their mission," Halla breathed. "To kill us, right? To kill Maukurz, and my baby, and the others?"
"They don't know about you all. There are plenty of Orc-folk passing through these mountains; nothing has happened to make them think any are living nearby."
"Yet you thought so; you went to wait for us, Maukurz said. You were waiting by where Dagalur was killed."
Bregun smiled slightly. "I... had a sense of it. It's not something I can explain, but I can assure you, no one ever listens to what I sense or think. Nor did I share this particular feeling with anyone else. Why would I, when it was my escape?"
"I shall listen," Halla said. "I shall listen very, very carefully, to all you say, and I will watch all you do. So will my brothers, and my mate."
"You must understand, I have just as much reason not to want any of my folk to find me here as you do!"
Clutching Luka, Halla didn't quite agree. But she said, "Tell me more about Gondor."
Bregun twisted a long strand of flame hair around her tanned finger. "What I know is... they have a base at Isengard. Lots of our people bring trade goods there, though there's been some trouble, the old chieftan was killed by my own cousin... And my husband-my former husband-was kin to the old chief. So my folk don't go to Isengard anymore, more the pity. It's good business... Anyway. They are in Isengard to... to eliminate the threat of Orcs. You all up here have caused no trouble, but to the north, in the Misty Mountains, there were raids and killings and such going on after the War. When the Men from Gondor came to my tribe, many of our folk didn't want to help, because Gondor went right on doing business with my cousin the killer, after the old chief was run through. But Gondor was willing to pay in gold, that our men served as scouts in this part of the mountains. I'm thinking that's who chased... the old Uruk and the skinny one... when they rescued the Orcess. And that's who shot your mate."
"Their names are Baiurz-Commander Baiurz to you-and Narzum. The Orcess is Uliima. Do you think they will scout so high? Do you think they will find us here?"
"I don't know... I think... I think not... At least, we won't die. But it might be best to move."
"What do you mean, we won't die? How can you know that?"
Bregun smiled, her eyes sly and dark. "It's just a feeling I have. Like I know I will have another daughter soon, though she'll be nothing like the one I lost."
Halla understood then, gasping a little in surprise. "You mean you have Foresight!"
"I don't know about all that. Sounds quite fancy! But yes, I see things, and they often come to pass. Although I can be wrong, too. I thought, also, that I would find my sister, when I told Shatauz I would come live with him. But she's hidden to my... sight. I can only hope these Gondorians, these Rangers, haven't done her in."
Bregun looked up abruptly; Shatauz was coming back into the cave, a scowl on his face. Bregun pulled her dress over her head, and climbed out of the furs. She stood up to greet him, quite bravely, Halla thought, seeing as how everyone suspected her of treachery. For Halla's part, she thought that carelessness, and self-centeredness, were more likely Bregun's faults. But she also had a great gift to add to their group... and the idea of a female child, perhaps a future mate for Luka, was exhilerating.
Yet then again, wouldn't that be exactly what to dangle before me, to get me on her side?
Halla leaned her head back into the furs, staring up at the hated ceiling, wishing more than anything that she could just get up, even for a moment! But at least she had learned a bit more about Bregun. When her advice was sought, she would say that Bregun should be watched, given a little more time. What she had to offer likely outweighed the risk she had taken, provided she didn't do anything to endanger the group again. It seemed that danger was coming fast enough on its own, without anyone's help.
Gingerly, Halla turned her bare ankles in circles, then slowly tried to bend her knee and lift her leg. The pain was blinding once she passed a certain point, but it didn't matter anymore. Whatever anyone said about her needing to rest, Halla felt like a snared rabbit on her back. She would just have to endure the pain, and force herself to get up again, as soon as she possibly could. Because they couldn't possibly stay in the cave, with scouts lurking so close, bent on hunting Uruk-hai and Orcish survivors!
But if they left, Halla thought, where would they go? A rush of sorrow twisted her guts. She would have to leave her home after all, and it wasn't fair in the least bit. It was her land. For all she knew, Finnan was dead. At the very least, he was far away, and she should be mistress of her land in his stead... By rights, she should be able to bannish Orc hunters from her property; she should be able, also, to banish anyone who objected to her and Maukurz, and the rest of their family.
The pain of it all became too great, and with a little cry of helpless fury, Halla collapsed back onto her furs. It was hideously pitiful that she should lie on her side, crying, with danger so close; but what else could she do? She shut her eyes, and tried to push away the despair that threatened to drown her, focusing only on the soft warmth of her sleeping son, and trying to forget, just for a moment, how offensive his very life was to her own kind.