Storm Front - Prologue
"Stay behind me, Ancalima. There are predators in these woods."
Ancalima frowned, obediently stepping back behind her father. She knew they were lost, she and the rest of her family, and at that moment every evil tale she had ever heard about the dark forests crossed her mind. She felt a hand settle on her shoulder, and she looked around to see her mother standing next to her.
"Come, my love," her mother said softly. "You can ride on Jak."
Jak was a mule, the only pack animal the family had brought with them. The poor beast was old and bony, so rundown that Ancalima's older siblings were forced to carry most of the goods. She was the youngest, being only of six years, and so had nothing more to carry than her ragged old doll and a few rolled up blankets tied onto her back by leather straps. She nodded, and her mother lifted her up and set her on the old mule's back. Jak snorted, shaking his long ears. Her mother, who was holding Jak's lead, smiling reassuringly at her.
"We'll find our way soon," she said.
Ancalima looked around. Her father, a stern but caring man, led the way through the dark and silent forest, armed with a heavy hunting bow and a quiver full of arrows. Behind him walked her eldest brother and her grandfather. Her mother grasped Jak's lead, appearing quite weary. Behind them were her elder sister, brother, and grandmother. Bringing up the rear, armed with a heavy hatchet, was her uncle. All of them were wary, keeping their eyes on the woods to either side of the narrow, overgrown trail they traveled on.
Originally, Ancalima and her family had been heading for a small settlement on the bank of the Anduin, a three week journey north of their small village along the border of Rohan. Crossing the mighty river and traveling north had been the easy part of the journey. Getting caught in a sudden rainstorm, deciding to take cover in the forest, and losing track of their path was giving them more trouble than they could ever want. Now, they were almost desperate to reach the river again, but deep inside Ancalima knew they were just going further and further into the forest itself.
Suddenly, Jak tossed his head and brayed, jerking his lead of her mother's grip. Ancalima desperately grasped the saddle, dropping her doll in the process. Every eye immediately turned as Jak reared up, braying again and almost sending Ancalima to the ground. Frightened beyond her wits, Ancalima held the saddle with all her strength.
"What is the matter with the mule?" she heard her grandfather ask.
"Hang on, Ancalima!" her mother shouted. "Steady, Jak! Steady, old boy!"
But the mule refused to calm down. With Ancalima still clinging to his back, Jak bolted forward, knocking her father and brother aside as he ran. Ancalima heard her mother scream, and looked back to cry for help. Several furry beasts had appeared from the darkness and were surrounding her family. Jak had somehow sensed their presence, and was now running for his life, carrying Ancalima farther away. Ancalima screamed, but her family was now out of sight, and Jak was running wild. Trees whipped by them, and the forest itself, which had once been silent, was now alive with the shrieks of other animals. Jak kept going, and soon Ancalima had no idea where she was, and doubted she would ever find her way back.
Suddenly, the forest opened into a small clearing, and Jak slid to a halt. The old beast was gasping deeply, almost dead from the exertion, and Ancalima took the chance and slid to the ground. The clearing was nothing more than bare, dead dirt, and in the middle a rusted old animal trap was chained into the ground. Ancalima swallowed nervously and looked up, gasping when she noticed the city in the distance. For a moment, her hopes rose, but she quickly realized there was something very wrong about the city. The smell of death and evil was thick in the air, and plumes of black smoke rose into the darkening sky. As she watched, a large winged animal appeared and circled around one plume, quickly disappearing as it flew down into the city itself.
"Come on, Jak," Ancalima said shakily, reaching out and grabbing what was left of the old mule's lead. "We're not safe here."
The animal seemed to agree, because Jak willingly turned and followed Ancalima back into the cover of the forest. Once the view of the city was obscured by the trees, Ancalima sank down onto an exposed root, feeling hot tears slide down her face.
"I want my Papa and Mama," she whimpered, her tiny body trembling. Jak snorted and swiveled his ears, but otherwise did not respond. "Why did you have to take us so far away? Now they'll never find us."
She trembled again as she remembered the furry beasts. More tears fell, and Ancalima slowly slipped to the ground, burying her head in her arms and sobbing. Jak sniffed the soil nearby, snorting again as he pushed some duff aside in an effort to find something to eat. Ancalima glanced up, blinking when Jak uncovered something shiny. She wiped away her tears, sniffling as she reached out and grasped the small object. It was covered in dirt and grime, but once Ancalima wiped some of it away, she gasped.
It was an amulet carved from blue stone. The silver bands encircling the stone, which was shaped like a leaf, were heavily tarnished, but the stone itself was still smooth and unmarred. The chain was also untouched, the tiny links glistening like fresh silver. Although the chain was thin, Ancalima quickly realized that it was amazingly strong. The beauty of her new treasure distracted her completely from her plight, and she was soon smiling as she carefully cleaned it off.
"Look at it, Jak," she said, showing it to the now dozing mule. "It's so pretty."
Jak blinked wearily, and Ancalima smiled broadly, taking the reaction as agreement. Spreading the chain, Ancalima slid it over her head, sighing as the weight of the amulet settled on her neck and chest. It brought her great comfort, and she tucked it underneath the collar of her dress, feeling the cool stone against her skin. Finding the precious object had rekindled her hope, and she slowly stood.
"Come on, Jak," she said, rousing the mule. "We have to go find Mama and Papa."
She barely got five steps away from the tree before a tall, shadowy form blocked her path. She screamed, and Jak reared wildly, turning and bolting away. Ancalima fell to the ground, trembling as the figure stared down at her. More slowly appeared from the shadows, approaching silently. One spoke, but Ancalima could not understand the words.
"Don't hurt me," she pleaded, tears falling from her wide, frightened eyes.
The figures stood silently for a moment longer, then one crouched down and settled a comforting hand on her shoulder. Ancalima whimpered, but then the figure pulled back the hood shadowing his face, and Ancalima stared into the gentle eyes of an Elf. White-blonde hair framed his handsome face, and he smiled softly.
"Do not be afraid, child," he said, his voice warm. "We will not hurt you."
He beckoned to the others, and they pulled back their hoods. Ancalima realized that they were all Elves. She had never met one before, but at the moment she was very grateful to see them.
"I lost my Mama and Papa," she said desperately, grasping the hand on her shoulder. "They were attacked by beasts. Jak carried me away, and I want to go back."
The expression on the Elf's face changed, and he slowly frowned.
"You are lucky the mule carried you away," he said sadly. "We found your family."
For a moment, Ancalima was joyful. The Elves had found her family! Then, she recognized pity in their expressions, and her smile melted from her face.
"Mama?" she asked, her voice soft, her eyes growing wide. "Papa?"
The Elf slowly shook his head. For a moment, Ancalima was in shock. Then, the realization of the Elf's words sank in, and she started bawling. The Elves seemed startled, but after a moment the Elf who had spoken to her gathered her into his arms, and she buried her face in his warm cloak, crying her parents' names. They were speaking again in their strange, almost musical language, but Ancalima did not notice. She was an orphan, now.
* * * * * *
In the abysmal blackness of the dungeon cell, a child's cry echoed softly in the ears of the creature huddled within. Slowly, she opened her eyes, forcing herself to return to the waking world. She could smell the stink of foul creatures all around her, but did not heed it. All she had to feed on were such creatures, and knew their stench was her own. Even now, the taste of vile blood remained in her throat. The carcass of what had once been one of her keepers still lay nearby, a clear sign that nothing had been near her since. The keeper would have been replaced with a fresh one had she been checked on.
She shoved the carcass closer to the door, grunting softly when pain stung her jaws. Sitting up, she rubbed the tight, rough leather with the back of her hand. For as long as she could remember, she had worn this vile thing on her head. It was a mocking replica of a horse's bridle, strapped tight around her skull and held there by bolts driven into the bone of her lower jaw. The bit was sharp, and over time it had ripped up the corners of her mouth to the point where the flesh had grown around the metal. Her keepers took great pleasure in forcing her to drag heavy loads by her jaw, often increasing the weight as she crawled and stopping only when the bit had ripped itself free once more.
The bridle was only one of the innumerable tortures she was forced to endure. The only comfort she possessed was the black cloak her master had commanded to remain in her company. In the times she was left alone, its dark magic dulled the pain. She was grateful to have it, though she knew why her master had wanted her to keep it. She had long known it had been the hope that she would learn how to use it, and take the place its former owner had once held.
But she refused to learn, and would not obey orders, and so she was tortured night and day. Her keepers had been commanded to break her spirit at all costs. Any and every expense, no matter what the cost of life, was being extended towards her. But she still clung to the last shred of her sanity, the last little portion of her mind that constantly reminded her that she hadn't always been here. She dimly remembered grass, sunshine, and water. She remembered a name.
Yes, she knew she would always remember that name, even if her own had been lost to the haze of time and pain.
Arwen. My beloved Arwen.
A sound echoed suddenly, but it was not from a child this time. Perhaps she had dreamt that noise. It was loud and harsh, a wicked laugh that she had heard many times before. There were heavy footsteps approaching, and as the footsteps grew louder, so did the laughter.
There was a pause, and the footsteps stopped. She didn't have to look up to know the sources of the voices, two hideously scarred Orcs, had arrived at the door. "Damn, she took out Urk."
"Throw out the body," the first Orc ordered, and she heard a clack as the door was pushed open. "You can take over Urk's watch. The master has something special planned for her soon."
"Another Warg-bating?" the second Orc asked, the nervousness in his tone poorly masked.
She growled softly, watching as the Orcs entered, slowly, and started reaching for the keeper's body. Warg-bating was one of the most horrific of the tortures she was forced to endure. Always unarmed and almost always chained up, she was thrown in a pit and forced to fight two or three of the massive beasts at once. She had felt the claws and teeth of the beasts so many times that the pain had become as trivial as a bee sting, and her body could heal from the wounds mere hours after the fights, no matter the severity.
Of course, the healing did not extend to the physical removal of body parts. During the very first Warg-bating, one of the beasts had bitten off half of her left foot. The leg, already crippled from old injuries--including an almost complete skinning that left the lower part a bit withered--had been virtually useless since then, forcing her to maintain her balance on her right leg. She had not been bated for a long time, though. Her keepers had turned to different kinds of tortures, though she had no real idea why. Perhaps she had killed off all the Wargs suitable for bating.
"The master is bored with Warg-bating," the first Orc said as they completed dragging the body out and slamming the door again. "The creature has never lost. She's no closer to giving in, so he wants to deal with her himself."
She growled deeply, stiffening. What the Orcs were speaking of was unusual, and she had long learned that nothing unusual was good. The Orcs had heard her growl, and the second one--new to the watch, due to the fact that he seemed not to realize the danger in standing so close to the door--laughed and placed a hand on the bars.
"Not too happy, eh?" it asked with a sneer. "You're bringing this misery on yourself. Accept the master's control, and your pain will end."
She approached the door, still growling as she stared the Orc in his beady black eyes. She could see the nervousness and fear he was trying to mask. She drew closer, flexing the muscles of her arms and forcing herself to stand on her solid leg, feeling the cloak settle heavily on her shoulders. The Orc's nervousness was now plain on his face, but the other continued to smile. He was standing at a safe distance, and seemed to be enjoying the other's fear.
The Orc at the door glanced at the other, as if looking for instruction, and she lunged. Hands outstretched, she grabbed the Orc's arm and sank her fingers into the flesh, bringing a yelp of pain from the creature. The other laughed, and she was slightly distracted by the sound. She turned her attention to him.
"Now!" the Orc snarled.
The Orc whose arm she held suddenly pulled back, tugging her through the bars. She grunted as her chest slammed against the door, and dimly she felt the Orc rip his arm from her grasp and twist her arms around, preventing her from escaping. She struggled violently, but pain was lancing through her shoulders, and she soon stopped, snarling viciously. The second Orc approached, unsheathing a blade from his belt. Breathing harshly, she stared at the blade. She once had great power, power enough to even summon fire, but she no longer had the strength to pull off such a feat now. She was helpless.
"The master thinks you need more convincing," the second Orc said cruelly.
The Orc holding her arms suddenly grasped her wrists and flattened her hands against the metal of the door. She snarled and snapped the teeth she had left, her fangs extended. During her imprisonment, both sets of fangs had gained at least a quarter-inch in length, a compensation for the loss of her molars. Almost all of her teeth, save for the fangs and the teeth in between, had been ripped out before the bridle was put into place. The fangs were strong enough to pierce the tough flesh of Orcs and Wargs, but could not help her now. The first Orc grinned evilly.
It happened fast, so fast that her shock momentarily masked the ungodly pain. But the shock wore away quickly, and she let out a high-pitched screech that caused both Orcs to stumble backwards and clutch their ears. Quickly, she pulled her arms back inside and threw herself to the back of the dungeon cell, holding her hands to her chest. The darkness around her was almost complete, but she could still see her maimed hands, and smell the blood flowing freely. She looked down, horrified, and slowly the fact that both her thumbs were missing began sinking in.
The wounds soon sealed, and the blood stopped flowing. But though the pain soon dulled, she remained where she lay, thinking over everything she had lost, and the darkness she had facing her now. She barely noticed when the door opened, and a group of a dozen or so Orcs filed in, led by the two that had maimed her.
"Are you ready to give in?" the leader growled.
She had not spoken--beyond growling and snarling--in years, but as the Orcs approached and began to bind her arms and legs for transportation to the torture chamber, she spoke. Faye narrowed her eyes, and uttered one single word, a word that later she paid dearly for.