Prologue: Never a Dull Moment

Azûr staggered to the stream's bank, his back on fire, ears still ringing from the pounding required to set the lash to his flesh. Sinking to his knees, he dipped his hands into the cool water and drank deeply. The trees were thick enough between him and the camp he'd left behind to shield him from prying eyes as he stiffly peeled off his ragged shirt. Not for the first time, he regretted opening his mouth in anything like a challenge to Nauronk.

The small band's leader was huge, even by Uruk-hai standards. He'd led armies in the field during the War, miraculously escaping the Last Battle with the horselords with only a missing eye. Azûr, too, had crawled away from that battle more or less intact, but few others shared their fortune. He knew of none who made it to safety, such as it was in a world suddenly bereft of the Shadow.

He felt it, when the Dark Lord fell, as had they all. Being Isengarders, they hadn't expected to, but there was enough of Mordor in them to send them all into spasms of pain and nightmares that clung to their minds even in their waking hours. Then the Men had come.

Not right away, of course. They'd had their own affairs to nudge into order before they took on the 'duty' of obliterating what remained of the Orc presence. Orcs sought refuge in numbers, setting aside clan rivalries, only to have their tentatively forged alliances severed along with their heads. Azûr heard about these settlements when their destruction was whispered of by a refugee fleeing the wrath of Men. But he only saw Orcs in retreat; never Uruk-hai.

So they kept moving their camp, meandering into the sparsely populated north, hoping to eventually find a place to rest, settle, live. That is, Azûr was ever hopeful of such peace. Nauronk dearly wished to take as many whiteskins with him as he could, no matter that such acts brought unwanted attention. Their northward path was often diverted by the stray scent of Men, and Nauronk's obsessive need to slay the source. While such forays supplied them with Man-flesh and kept them fed well enough, once they reached Rohan, the settlements grew farther apart, and lone Men wandering in the open became more scarce.

Though Azûr despised the short stint they spent in Gondor, doggedly following Nauronk's lead and aiming to join with the Dark Lord's forces, he liked Rohan even less. The sooner they left its rolling hills and grasslands behind, the better, to his mind. It was what he and Nauronk clashed about more than once, and what earned Azûr a sound thrashing each time.

He flexed his shoulders, feeling the tightening of his flesh across his back. Some of the wounds were infected, he was sure. The old general was good at what he did, and forbade any from healing the hapless Uruk. Many of the whip lashes were across his shoulders, impossible to treat by himself. All he could do was what he did now; soaking a rag and trickling water down over the tortured skin to relieve some of the pain. When his humiliation was subdued for a bit, he'd return and grovel as was expected. For now, though, he indulged his quiet whimpering.

Hours later, he returned to camp. Nauronk glared at him but said nothing. The big Uruk did, however, cuff Azûr on the head in passing. Just as a reminder of his place.

"Why you let him do that?" Gimub asked. But he spoke in an undertone, mindful that any sympathy for the Uruk was grounds for like treatment.

"Think I got a choice?" Azûr grumbled sullenly.

Gimub stared at him, blinking. "'Course you got a choice. You could keep yer fucking mouth shut." Shaking his head, he turned away and continued muttering under his breath, "Open yer mouth, get yer ass beat. Close it, get ignored. Don't seem that hard to figure out to me."

"Somebody's gotta think round here," Azûr growled. "Don't wanna go raiding no fucking village. Don't care how close they are, or what spoils he's wanting."

"Yeah, yer the brains, eh?" Gimub snorted sarcastically.

"Just wanna get north, is all," Azûr muttered, rolling his shoulders and wincing. Gimub narrowed his eyes and looked the younger Uruk over.

"Want me to take a peek?" he murmured. "Got some stuff. Nauronk don't need to know about it."

Azûr shot him a hostile glare. "I ain't lettin' you fuck my ass, Gimub," he snarled.

Shrugging, Gimub poked at the campfire with a stick. "Gotta give to get, whelp. Ain't no free ride 'round here. Wanna fester and whatnot, that's yer business."

Azûr snorted with disgust. "It don't hurt that much, pushdug," he growled.

"Yer lucky Nauronk's more the hittin' kind," Gimub pointed out with a snicker. "Back in the barracks, you'd'uh got yer fill of it and no mistake, little snot like you."

"Not my barracks," Azûr muttered. "Good lads in there. Pizbûr was fair enough. Didn't put up with the kinduh shit your lot got up to."

"Hmph," Gimub snorted, unperturbed. "Wasn't so bad. Better at night, when most of'em was asleep. Get a nice, quiet fuck outta someone then." He smiled wistfully.

"Whiteskins're better," Azûr recalled. "Had one once. Female. Never look at an Orc ass again, you have one'uh their females."

"We weren't all so lucky as you," Gimub snapped. "Take what you could get, most of the time."

Azûr's brow furrowed, remembering the one time he'd fucked a whiteskin. It was an ugly memory. He'd bragged of his deed later, of course; it was expected. But there was something... wrong about it. He just didn't know what, exactly.

It didn't matter now. Shrugging it off, he stared into the fire and wondered how they were going to make it through another winter. Nauronk's hunger commanded as much as his formidable stature. Last winter, the other three Uruk-hai nearly starved so that he could be satisfied. Even after a reasonably good summer, the lean times of late fall were beginning to tell already. Both Gimub and Azûr were already skin and bones. The smallest of them, Gazbrûf couldn't seem to put on enough weight to hold his own kilt up, and had to cinch it with a rope.

Perhaps Nauronk had been a commander in Isengard, but they were over a year out of that place, long since lost their Master's Voice, and no longer heard the whispers of the Shadow. They'd come from the scattered remnants of their folk, and hadn't known each other at all until the Last Battle and the flooding forced them together. Why did they obey Nauronk, who had done little to earn their loyalty?

They could not afford to do otherwise. He was an officer for a reason. Maybe he abused them, but he'd managed to keep them alive, even though sometimes he took them too close to that fine line over which discovery of their existence and immediate death resided.

A year ago, the excitement of such uncertainty had been envigorating. Now it was a nuisance. The emptiness of their bellies spoke much louder than the need to kill the horselords, at least for Azûr.

It looked to be another spare night, too. Nauronk had taken the meager kills of his followers, a rabbit and a squirrel, and already eaten all of the flesh. What was left was the marrow from the bones; when he tossed them to Gimub and Azûr as an afterthought, the two nearly came to blows, scrambling for the scraps.

Neither spared a thought for Gazbrûf, on watch and deprived of even so little a ration.

As he cracked open a bone and savored the marrow, Azûr's ears pricked and nose twitched. He straightened with alarm, his meal forgotten.

"The fuck?" Gimub muttered, staring in the same direction. Running feet were approaching. The Uruk grabbed the nearest weapon, shoving Azûr's hand away as he reached for the same. They had too few to go around, and Gimub was damned if he'd be the one without a blade.

Nauronk leaped to his feet and unsheathed both his swords. The three Uruk-hai assumed a fighting stance. Azûr trembled, but bared his claws and teeth. It was all he had.

Gazbrûf's thin form burst through the trees into the clearing, a frantic and desperate look on his face. "Men!" he cried. "Comin' this wa-..."

There was a loud thunk that echoed ominously. Gazbrûf's face went slack with surprise, then he fell to his knees. A moment later, he tipped forward and landed face down, an arrow in his back.

The trees erupted with horselords, on foot and brandishing bright blades. Nauronk roared a furious challenge.

"Throqu matum, ninkriipu!" he bellowed, and leaped at the closest soldier.

The clash of swords rang all about Azûr. Two Men circled about the battle and came at him, and his breath quickened in panic. He roared a warning and took a swing at one, but it was easily dodged. He felt the sting of a blade tear open his ragged shirt and slice across his ribs. Instinctively recoiling, he backed away.

He did not notice the two horsemen exchange a look, nor did he see the hand gripping a sword hilt descend. There was a sharp pain in his temple, then blackness.


Pizbûr = military rank equivalent to sergeant
Throqu matum, ninkriipu!
= Eat death, whiteskins!