An orc staggered along the corridors of Barad-Dûr, searching for something she had lost. Lost long ago, and forgotten, but still she searched for it. What was it she had lost, she wondered? Her arms were folded inward over each other as if she held something against her shoulder, but they were empty.
She sang a low, tuneless song to herself as she staggered along, half bent over against a dull pain in her side. She had been stabbed there once, she remembered. Just before she had fallen into a steaming fountain of burning water. She had clawed her way out to find herself in the midst of a crowd of orcs, her flesh burnt and raw, her hair patched and ragged. They had dragged her away with them, she remembered, back to Barad-Dûr, and here she remained. It was a distant memory, and only one of many painful memories she would rather forget.
But what was it she was looking for? She paused at a ragged doorway within the fire scoured wall, and peeped in, hesitant. This was the room of the human snaga. She tisked her tongue thoughtfully before, with slow reluctance, she shuffled inside. Was what she searched for in here?
In small bay in the wall, upon the stone slab where the woman slept at night, sat a small crumpled cloth. The snaga carried it often with her, the orc remembered. But today, it was left alone. The orc drew near to it, where it had been left crumpled.
The orc poked the shining white cloth. It did nothing. Carefully, with great trepidation, she put a hand on it.
The cloth was smooth beneath her clawed fingers, and slowly she curled her fingers closed, slowly bringing the cloth to her face.
Was this what she was looking for? It smelled sweet. A distant tang. Something danced on the edge of her conscious thought. A vision of a green valley-,
“What are you doing in here?” A stern voice barked behind her, and she spun to see the mortal woman standing before her, a grimace of displeasure upon her face as with a twist of her lips, the human pointed firmly at the ragged stone entrance to her room, indicating that the orc was to go.
No beatings, the orc realized to herself with some surprise as she dropped the cloth, and turned to shuffle away.
“Sorry.” The orc muttered. “It pretty.”
A short huff of surprise broke from the woman’s lips. “What is your name?” The mortal asked, her speech again slow and tentative as if her words came forth with effort.
“Mm, Burza.” She shuffled her feet.
Burza shuffled her feet again, timid beneath the mortal’s gaze. The woman’s mouth was curved upward now, her arms folded as she shook her head in a gesture of disbelief. No one had looked at Burza like that, ever. But somehow, she knew it was a benevolent gesture.
“You, Burza!” A harsh voice barked as a massive orc appeared, its jaw jutting forward over multiple layers of extra skin that flabbered back and forth as it spoke through thick rotting teeth jutting over its upper lip. It lunged through the doorway and snatched the little female by the few strands of her ragged black hair, yanking her out the door, squalling as she went. “You know the rule. No touching the snaga!”
“I no touch the snaga!” Burza squealed as a heavy hand came down stinging, upon her head, flopping her to the rocky floor. “I no touch!”
“Come, Burza. Away from the snaga.” The orc rumbled then in a lower voice, its rage calmed for the moment. Snatching the little orc by her skinny wrist, it yanked her along down the ragged, rock strewn corridor.
Burza staggered along the corridor, a sack of mouldy bread slung over her shoulder. The torchlight was red and bleary, and the smoke wafted in her eyes.
Perhaps that was why tears were stinging at her eyes, though she grumphed, and blinked them swiftly away. She an orc after all, strong and fearless, or so she was expected to be. She could not remember what made her heart twinge with unhappiness. It could not have anything to do with the new rumour that was being passed about the board when she had gone to meat, that there was another snaga taken from the lands of the men. An Elf, this time. Though the whispers were that it was a special Elf different from the others.
Where was it, she had asked, but she had received dark looks and silence from her fellows up and down the board, and a spat over the head for her pains. And someone had flung a bag of mouldy bread at her, and ordered her to feed the horses.
It was just as well. Burza had sighed to herself, taking the bag and thumping away. Having anyone show even the slightest kindness to her would only lead to pain in the end. It had been countless years since she had spoken to the human snaga. And since then, over the many vague years that seemed moments, and moments that seemed years in the timeless waste where she lived, Burza had not been allowed near the snaga again.
“Outa the way, Burzzzza.”
Lifting her blearing eyes, Burza gulped hard, and skittered to the side of the stony corridor at the hissed command. An orc she knew, Gratbag, his name was, came shuffling by, dragging another orc, a dead one, by the ankles. She shuddered as Gratbag dragged his load past, both at the sight of the dead orc, its head flopping awkwardly about, as it bounced over the stony floor, and Gratbag’s presence. He was smaller than most of the others, but still stronger than Burza and by far, one of the worst.
“I’ll tosssss thisss one in the rubbissh, and then come looking for you, eh?” Gratbag grinned, staring darkly at the female orc, and running his fat, swollen tongue over his lips.
Burza said nothing to this. Instead, she cringed and turned away, scampering quickly in the opposite direction, but not fast enough to hear Gratbag’s leering chuckle following her.
The horses, she reminded herself miserably. They needed feeding. It was not such a dismal task, she decided, and renewed the speed of her shuffling feet through the winding hall, and toward their cavernous stable.
But suddenly a scream, akin to the cry of the Nazgûl skewered its way down the corridor, and into her ears, wild and painful, and she dropped her bag, clamping her hands over her large mottled ears. The horses were screaming. Wild, rageful screaming. Something had gotten into their stable, something more than a scabby rat, from the sound of their fury.
Behind her now, adding its din to the shrieking of the horses came a high, warbling blood cry that echoed ever nearer. And several orcs, bearing weapons, appeared round a bend of stone, and torchlight bobbing and waving, drew near as several armored orcs came scampering near.
“Make yerself useful, Burza, and come with us!” A club wielding orc shouted as the group passed her and it snatched her arm, dragging her along, the bag of moulded bread forgotten behind her.
“What’sa wrong?” Burza grumbled, hurrying to keep the pace of her scampering comrades, so that she would not be dragged off her feet.
“Snaga kilt `em!” Her companion shouted with a snarl. “And stolen the Elf baby snaga!”
“No’un told me the Elf snaga wasa baby!” Burza wailed, feeling a sudden urge to clutch at the emptiness at her shoulder and gnaw at her knuckles. But she dared not, not with so many of her fellows about. They would mock her for her foolish habit again, and hit her as they had, before.
“Snaga’s run off with the Elf baby.” The orc continued, yanking Burza along as he talked. “Betcha she’s in with the horses, `n’ made `em scream.” The great wooden door that led into the cave that was the horse’s stable was nearing, and with a blood hungry wail, the band of orcs burst through, only to stop short with a surprised huff at the spectral vision of one of the robed Nazgul standing before them in all its shadowed splendour.
Burza blinked in surprise. Something was wrong with this wraith, but the other orcs didn’t seem to sense what she did as she looked about her at the cravenly faces that shivered beneath the silent gaze of the shadowed hood. What it was, she was not certain, but she could not feel the black weight of deathless hatred that lingered in the air about the other Nazgul.
“You.” The single wraith hissed in the fierce breathless whisper in which the Nazgul spoke, pointing to the orc beside Burza. “Do you wait for the return of Lord Sauron, to saddle and bridle my mount?”
A single gauntleted hand appeared from beneath the wraith’s cloak, and indicated to the pen holding the nearest horse. Burza furrowed her brow. Just this morning, she had been ordered to clean and polish the gauntlets of one of Sauron’s lieutenants. She had done her work in here, and left them upon a shelf when she was finished. Burza glanced at the shelf that sat nearby. The gauntlets were indeed gone, along with an old tattered robe that had been hanging nearby, neglected and forgotten for some time. She gulped, and said nothing.
The small orc beside her stiffened fearfully beneath the fearsome gaze of the shadowed hood, glancing between the wraith, and the ten horses behind it, nine of which were nearly going mad with fury, as if they were trying to break down the doors of their pens. Burza’s eyes focused upon the one remaining horse, black as the others, but calmer, its head hanging low over the door of its pen in weary rest.
About her, the others were getting restless at the hesitance of the orc that shivered beneath the pointing finger of the single wraith. And finally, with several shoving at him, he started forward.
“Yes, my Lord.” The orc, with bent head, scurried into the stall of the one quieted horse, and with shaking fingers, struggled to slip its bridle over its head and secure the saddle as quickly as it could, his fingers slipping in his nervousness until at last, he was finished.
“My Lord.” The orc snorted, when it had finished, leading the horse from its pen.
Without speaking a word, the Ringwraith swung up into the saddle, with a fluid grace unusual for its kind, Burza noted. Its face, ever shrouded beneath its hood, glared down on Burza and the other silent orcs once it was settled into the saddle. “Move aside.” It ordered in a hideous, whisper.
The others as in one body, scrambled aside, and Burza moved as well, though more slowly, her eyes still studying the wraith carefully as she moved slowly out of its path. And as she did, a strange sight caught her eye. A bare foot, pink and fleshed with warm life, and small, like a woman’s foot, peaked from beneath the ragged folds of the cloak it wore before the folds of the cloak fell about it. Burza tipped her head to the side. The snaga? She wondered. And then she stifled a gasp, for it all became clear. The snaga was beneath the cloak! And somewhere hidden beneath those ragged folds, she held the baby Elf snaga the others had told Burza about! Burza wanted to cheer aloud, but she dared not, for she would not let the secret be known. Instead, she remained silent, and did not speak as the human snaga hidden safe beneath the ragged cloak, nudged the black horse upon which she rode, out the door and away down the corridor.
“Little baby. Safe now.” Burza muttered beneath her breath as she watched the shadowy mounted figure disappear around a wall of rock. The baby would be saved. Something touched Burza’s soul then, a little shred of light in the vast abyss that was her hollow heart, comforting that part of her that had been searching for something precious and lost for as long as she could remember. And her cracked and swollen lips curled up in a timid smile.
“Burárum, little orc.”
A voice above her shook Burza from her dreams, and she peeked from beneath the star woven blanket to see the great Ent with the mossy beard and the deep golden eyes gazing thoughtfully down at her.
“Hrm?” She queried sitting up. Was the Ent going to step on her now at last?
The night was fading. In the distant east, a blue light was rising, snuffing out the distant sparks of stars as it slowly climbed higher across the dome of the sky. Morning would come soon, Burza lamented, and with it, the burning, scorching sun.
“Where did you find this?” The Ent asked thoughtfully, touching a wooden finger softly against the blanket.
“I no stoled it!” Burza grumbled, clutching the blanket tightly beneath her chin as if she feared the Ent would take it.
The Ent straightened slightly, and shivered somewhat as if quaking beneath a heavy wind. “It belongs to the little Valië.” The Ent rumbled.
“Mm,” Burza muttered, hesitant. Then finally, with great reluctance, she pulled it away from her head, and held it out toward the Ent’s wooden hand. “You give it back to her?”
The Ent began slowly to reach for the little cloth, but paused, and with a thoughtful rumbled from deep in his throat, drew his hand back.
“No,” he rumbled slowly. “No, I must stay here and guard Saruman.” His eyes blinked slowly at her as he added, “You may keep it.”
Burza blinked at his words, and at his deep golden eyes that sparkled now above a twisted smile upon his bark and asked, “Then you no squash me?”
“No.” The Ent said with somber shake of his head. “We will not.” He looked past her shoulder out at the gathered trees beyond the wall, and with a heavy meaningful glance his voice growing louder so that it echoed about the forest before her, he added, “nor will my trees harm you while you pass beneath them, hm?”
A low hissing rumble wove through the trees as if in answer to the Ent’s words, and a chill shivered along Burza’s spine. What would have been her fate, she wondered, had she tried to run away through those very trees the night before? She was glad she would not know now.
“Thank you, ah, master.” Burza grunted, scrambling awkwardly to her feet, and cuddling the little blanket closely to herself.
“Ah, you are welcome, little orc.” The great Ent returned, the bark of his mouth twisting into a thoughtful expression. “We will probably not meet again, but if we do, you may call me,” he sighed long, “Treebeard.”
“Awright, Treebeard.” Burza mumbled, turning the word over on her tongue. And what was another word for it? She wondered, ah yes, Fangorn.
“Well, away with you then, burárum. I’ve important matters to attend to. Off with you.” The great Ent waved a hand of dismissal at her. “To wherever your feet will carry you.”
And at that, Burza hopped down out of the ragged crack in the wall, and trotted off through the tangled shadows of the trees, her thick soled feet flopping rhythmically beneath her as she scrambled over a rough path. The shadows were close about her, and the air thick. Beneath the trees beyond her sight, a creaking breathy noise followed her as the shadows closed about her, but nothing moved that she could see, and nothing harmed her.
Where would she go now? Back to Barad-Dûr perhaps? No, she shivered at the thought. Not back there. Never there. She was free now, she reminded herself, and thrilled at the thought. Free to do as she pleased, to go where she wished.
North. She would go north. She would follow the line of the mountains as far north as she could, and find where they led. She smiled to herself, and hugged the little blanket close against her as she hopped over a jutting root, pleased with her decision. For the choice settled well upon her mind, and upon her empty shadowed heart as well, which seemed not so empty, nor so black anymore, now.