Night encircled the land, her refreshing embrace squeezing the final shreds of dimming sunlight from the reluctant earth. The orcs sighed gently, relief soaring through their veins as darkness ousted the sun from her throne, and even her strict pace loosened for a moment to absorb the cool, ebony rays that flooded from the sky. As soon as her muscles relaxed, though, she swept up to the front again in a smooth blur of speed. She could not let the delight of black bliss steal away concentration. The captive was limp flesh on her back, swaying in rough rhythm to her running, only skidding to the side when a clump of stubborn bush tried to interrupt her path and was slashed down. Now and then he’d mutter, probably dashing from one terrifying dream to another, and clutch her neck, finding solace in the warm back against which he lay. Then she’d jolt him, and by the tired gasp guess that eyes had flipped open for a second and realized that reality could be worse than even his mind’s twisted route.
He hadn’t moved for a while now. Slightly curious, she heaved him up, adjusting his position, testing for resistance. None. Again. This time a light moan, surprisingly audible through the wildly tangled curls tickling her ear. Was that what these weaklings called fighting? Rebellion, perhaps? Brushing hair against the enemy! No wonder they had it on both feet and head-to provide for both being carried by the head and dragged away by the toes. Laughter echoed through her mind, dodging gutturally between the points of her teeth. Slignikh would have appreciated that joke. He was the only Sauronite she had ever known to have a decent sense of humour. Arrogant snaga. She’d take solitude over that filth any day.
She’d take solitude over that filth anyday? Almost sounded as if she wanted to escape being alone. That’s what happened when you had to run miles without a fight and lug around weaklings without hope of sport. Solitude built strength, endurance, and she relished it. By the Whitehand, was she getting soft?
“Merry, after this run we’re going to have to call you “the lion-hearted”. Merry the Lion-Hearted.” a thin chuckle wafted from carefree days past, and his bound hands touched faintly dangerous muscles and rugged skin. She growled, angry at the audacity of the halfling. Why couldn’t he be quiet? He’d have plenty of time to jabber when Saruman got him. “Merry, is that you? Merry?” His tone was rising in uncertain fear, softening as it shrilled through the air. “Merry, when will they come? When . . .?” Deep slumber, stealthy and sinister, snared him and silenced his hopeless question. She increased the tempo of thumping feet, power presenting a sharp contrast to his frailty. What kind of race just sat around and waited to be saved? Did he think his few remaining comrades would overcome over two hundred Uruk-Hai? Even if they did follow, they were too few and too slow. If they couldn’t save the halflings from being captured, what chance did he think they had after being worn out? No man or dwarf could keep up Uruks without dying of exhaustion, and as for the elf-hah! He’d die before his arrow kissed the air. Yet the weakling lay alone with only a meager escape attempt under his belt and expected to be rescued. She would enjoy seeing his face when he realized the full extent of his disappointment.
The breeze was persistent, tearing softly through the fearful stars and snatching at endurance. The captive pressed against her, struggling for protection, and getting none.
“Give it up, halfling.” She tossed the threatening advice over her shoulder. “Let the cold rip at you. You’ll be wishing for it when you feel the fires of Isengard.”
For once no response slipped from his mouth, even if matted curls did press a bit closer. “Weakling,” she whispered mockingly, “doesn’t even know how alone he is. We’ll cure him of that.” Still no response, not even a sign that he’d heard her. That was all right. The words were not for him. As mile after mile of country dozed upon its speeding feet, passing without interest, lost in dreams of its own, memory again slipped in through the chinks in the wall.
After Lruqsig’s death she’d trained all the harder, hacking, twisting, and running while others slept through hazy dusk or tore at chunks of dripping flesh, relishing their unfortunate dinner as night began to rest and day rise for her shift. She hardened herself to the cruel sun and continued until noon, forcing every weapon to respond to her touch, and teaching harshly the muscles that knew not how to use their power well when crossbow bolts were hidden in bushes and corpses, when knives were knocked shining to the ground. Once when she was charging empty grass Ripwarg swaggered up. He was the strongest of the Uruks and knew it well. She ignored him, lunging again at the invisible foe, slicing the turf into crumbling shreds.
Then his blade was against hers and all senses were sharpened as the world faded into a sweet blur of movement. She spun and ducked, hours of extra practice clanging against his smooth power and easy strength. He won eventually, dashing her to the ground, but it took him longer than usual, and when he strolled off laughing at another victory her teeth gleamed in new determination. She would not be a weakling for others to torment, to conquer, to kill. She was a fighting Uruk-Hai! Ripwarg would not beat her again. Days and nights wore on, an endless procession of exhausting exercises and bloody dreams. Ripwarg played with her often now, and each time his victory was less sweet. She noted carefully how he moved, smiled when she found another weakness. She would beat him . . .
The memory squealed as it was shoved away. Ripwarg was a fool. Launched an attack on some travelers near the Gap of Rohan on a night when they were sure to be caught. Wanted to show his bravery, his strength, his loyalty to Saruman. Nearly got himself and the seven other Uruks with him killed and Saruman betrayed. They’d had fun with those seven who’d been so foolish as to follow him. Ripwarg disappeared. Either Saruman killed him or he showed his cowardice and ran away. She opted for the latter. She had finally gotten to where she could fight him, and he didn’t come. Alone in a clearing, swishing her blade in practice, waiting for final, sweet victory, and the scum denied her that joy.
Perhaps the halflings would have a chance to fight before they died. Saruman could squeeze his information out of them and then turn them over. Perhaps she would get this one, get something out of hauling him around all this time. At least he wasn’t moving anymore. Probably too caught up in his loneliness and false hopes of rescue. The filth was so small. He should expected capture or fighting, trained for it, built up his endurance so he could have a chance of escape. Not that the idiot would think of such a novel concept anyway. Of course, he had tried to get away, if such a pitiful flight could be called that. The opportunity was screaming his name, though. Even Yulnug could probably see it coming. Still, it did prove his intelligence level was above the average Morian. So was a rat’s.
The weakling shifted and managed to get hair in her cut. Again. The idiot had spirit, but she’d seen men handle it better. Braving a journey without preparation, trying to escape with no ability to fight or run, and now attempting to provoke the one who could kill him the most easily. Unless the filth knew she couldn’t kill him. Just like Slignikh, playing with his prey. Did this halfling think he could get some slight admission of weakness from her? That she couldn’t withstand his petty torments? The arrogant slime. Angrily she jolted him. Unconsciously he held back the little cry, but it slipped out anyway. Was he trying to be tough? He had already shown how pitiful he was.
“You’re alone, halfling,” she hissed. “Alone.” This time he heard her.
“No.” The croak was scratchy but defiant.
“What, you mean your companion? The one who staggers around with death on his face? Do you think you’re going to be allowed to be near him? You stupid rat. The only time you’ll get close to him is if you have some defiance in that weak heart of yours. Then you’ll have the pleasure of seeing him tortured for your information. No. You’re alone.”
“Alone?” Sudden laughter, made coarse by suffering bubbled up. “Alone, Merry? With all these orcs about? Rather I should say we have too much company.” The laugh lingered as semi-reality blended in with memories that were much worse, and the halfling fell once again from light illusions to fell slumber, deeper than Saruman’s dungeons. Why had she talked to this idiotic creature in the first place? As if his mumbled comments could squeeze more pleasure from the dying night. At least he hadn’t slowed her down.
Mountains pierced haughtily the clouds ahead while a green tinted swath of black forest trimmed the bottom of their flaring ebony robes. A river slithered swiftly through the turf, glinting waters still awash with dark stars and night’s cool kiss. It was time to stop, and she watched with interest the orcs who still stood easily, those who stumbled blindly to a halt, long arms drooping with fatigue, and those who barely refrained from plummeting to the ground in weariness. When all had arrived and made some weak pretense at strength she slung the captive to the ground. Let him sleep while he could. He’d be running tomorrow, not hanging off her shoulders like a dead leaf. Letting refreshing rest surge through her, she strolled over to where some unlucky Uruk was doling out meat. It had to be an Uruk-Morians or Sauronites would get torn apart in order to get the most grub possible.
Ugluk pushed past her, showing respect for her strength, warning that he was the leader. He was heading to the captive, flask of orc-draught dangling tensely from his fist. Probably going to give the halflings another drink to keep them going. Perhaps they’d struggle again. Something to see anyway. She turned around, facing the way they’d run. As her eyes began to focus on Ugluk forcing the burning liquid down the halfling’s throat, though, a thin strand, silhouetted against the ever-stretching sun flicked her vision to it. Horsemen. Far away as yet, but the orcs would have to run soon, and double the pace. Their pursuers could not be allowed to catch up. She glanced toward the halfling again. Ugluk had left him with orc-draught pumping energetically through his veins, but the weakling looked like he couldn’t last a mile, let alone all they’d have to run. The rat was going to need something else. Her arm swung against the leather pouch by her side. She still had some horseflesh left, dried and delicious. She’d been saving it for a while now, waiting for the best time to devour it, but if it could keep the captive on his feet long enough for them to reach the forest, it’d have to do. Cursed weakling.
Yanking a slice of old bread from the nearest orc, she strode over and squatted near the captive, who stared at her in terror-blurred eyes.
“Here.” She tossed him the meat and bread and walked away. The meat-giver had better have something good today.