Night flayed the sun into stark red and orange streaks, and still she ran. She barely saw the others around her, crowded and jostling, striding forward urgently so as not to be cut down from behind. Some were tired now, wearied from a long day’s run, and they fought to stay in line, knowing the peril of falling back. She, of course, felt no tiredness. The slight ache in her legs was just a reminder of the innate frailty that lurked within, threatening to lunge at any moment. She had trained hard, and all but killed it, yet it stayed, delicate as an injured insect, yet always prepared to bite. She would smash it yet.
Cool darkness smothered the suffering of the remaining day, and only a slim silver scar showed where the sun had once been. It was time to stop. The area was flat, tiled with large, silken slabs of stone that masked the overhang of a cliff. She slung down her burden and watched with contempt as he curled up protectively, a lump of pale flesh shining dirtily in fear. He hadn’t even been the one running, yet he looked completely worn out. No stamina. How had his pitiful race managed to survive? His brown eyes peeled open as a Sauronite-Yulnug again-jogged over to Ugluk. He obviously thought he was important, and was trying to show his endurance by half-running, as if he could go on for hours yet. He was just emphasizing his own exhaustion. She, by just standing, breath firmly in check, all effortless power, looked more like she could run another week without rest than any of his staggering steps, quick but protesting.
“The scouts have come back at last,” he reported.
“Well, what did you discover?” Ugluk was no fool. He got to the point.
Yulnug shifted, and his stance betrayed more than just sore muscles. He was uncomfortable, yet he hoped that if he spoke confidently, Ugluk wouldn’t notice that his news wasn’t as good as he portrayed it to be.
“Only a single horseman,” he began, “and he made off westwards. All’s clear now.” She knew Ugluk’s response before he gave it voice. They let him get away? The absolute idiots! She could easily run more quickly, but the rest would fall apart. Those Morians and Sauronites were worth nothing save in battle, when they caught the arrows for the Uruks. If they were going to fight (and she hoped they were) they should needed to be fresh and close together, near Isengard. Not disbanded and strewn with tiredness, nowhere near aid if they needed it.
“Now, I daresay.” Ugluk was furious. He didn’t kill Yulnug, though. Surprising. She would have. “But how long? You fools! You should have shot him. He’ll raise the alarm. The cursed horsebreeders will hear of us by morning. Now we’ll have to leg it double quick.”
Ugluk sliced her halfling’s leg bonds and snagging his hair, yanked him upright. She gazed lazily, wondering if he’d stay standing. His eyes said yes, everything else no, and he collapsed, to her amusement. Ugluk reached for his flask of orc-draught, hurling the liquid down the weakling’s throat. This time, with the help of another hair-pull he was able to remain on his feet, though he swayed a little. Sad that he needed such strong stuff to give him strength, but at least now he wouldn’t whine into her ear the whole way to Isengard.
The other halfling was kicked, woken, treated. The others laughed as he struggled, unwilling for his gash to be healed, but she didn’t, just smiling as he stood, defiance written into every line. They would break him of that. He wasn’t strong enough to handle being alone, to blend in, and it was too late now anyway.
“Hullo, Pippin!” He was forcing himself to be cheerful. “So you’ve come on this little expedition, too? Where do we get bed and breakfast?”
Someone nudged her and she twirled, knife out. The offender backed away, and she smiled. She was stronger than he, stronger than all. She had survived, something these weak rats could never do. No one had found her out yet, save her brother, and he had died as soon as the suspicion crossed his lips. Her first kill. These fools didn’t know the joy of killing, the necessity of doing so. Now they were limp and ragged, unresisting as they were carried off to torture and death. It was sickening. They wouldn’t even try to escape. Typical of both elves and men-stupid and undependable as the former, cowardly as the latter. A despicable mix. Again she wondered why Saruman wanted them so much. An elvish plot (if any idea an elf came up with could be called a plot) of some sort was the rumor, but there was probably something else as well. There always was.
She was not among the halflings’ guards as they pounded down the ravine. Old grass, faded with age, fearfully met them. It provided good protection from the sharp rocks. She lashed the thought. Pain built up endurance. It had been her tolerance for pain that had helped her build strength where others stopped, and this in turn had saved her from falling behind, being yet another rag-tag to provide a shield or to kill-whichever suited the humour of the others at that moment. She smashed a pointed rock. It could not puncture her foot, hardened beyond callouses, but it did send a stream of awakeness through her. She had learned. Pain was fear to the weak, orc-draught to the strong.
The Sauronites and Morians were whining about running in sunlight. They came to serve their Eye (what sort of orc served an eye?) and to avenge their folk, or so they said. Some revenge-fleeing as soon as they saw a man or a sunbeam. At least Slignikh hadn’t complained about every patch of light.
“Hiding from the sun?” She’d jeered, finding a snaga taking refuge in the shadow of a boulder, cleaning his knife with long sweeps of cloth and tongue. “I knew you Sauronites were weak, but . . .”
“Weak, White-Hand?” He strode into the sun, arms careless at his sides, almost concealing their cruelty. She noted casually he still had the knife. Light spiraled gently and threw comfort into a faded memory, outlined in gray and black patterns behind him. He squinted for a second at this unaccustomed inflow of day, and a slight tremor forced his claws to vibrate the air into tiny ripples as he fought the instinct to retreat to deep shadows and darker kills. She gazed with interest as he won. At least he wasn’t like the others who flinched at the creeping nails of light that crawled into every crack. This one seemed almost ready to fight her. He was tensing. As his slight slouch straightened and his flattened nose flared and crinkled gently, she recognized him. He’d killed Grunyig the other day when the Uruk had stolen some of his meat. A snaga who could kill an Isengarder. Impressive, but he wouldn’t stand a chance against her.
“Be careful, snaga. You almost look like you want to fight. I wouldn’t make that mistake again, if I were you.”
His only response was a growl. Fire swirled in his eyes, yet he did not attack. He was waiting for her to move, to step just once, so he’d have her. A snaga who could not only fight, but fight well. She smiled, and the animals around left uneaten and free of torture fled. His name came to her.
“Your name is Slignkih, isn’t it Sauronite? I’ve heard of you. So you don’t care about the sunlight.”
“Not as much as the Morians. If you need an easy fight, White-Hand, speak to them.”
She grunted in approval at his comment, and the tension lessened. The Morians were the worst. Their bulging eyes led them into trouble the moment a speck of sun or well-shot arrow hurtled toward them.
They were flinching now. Light mist eddied around the helpless ground, but the sky was visibly blushing as the moon paled and shoved the young sunrise into the world. She continued, heedless of the lesser orcs as they grappled for shelter in each other’s meager shadows. She was a fighting Uruk-Hai. She had no time for weakness, even if she was alone. When a body rammed into her, she merely tickled it with her knife, pleased at the snarl and retreat that followed. The land was leveling out, sprawled in flat sleep as it was tackled and chopped by metal shoes and the dragging knives and hands of those who stumbled.
The halfling crossed her mind, soiled feet leaving light footprints. The idiot was probably too stupid to use this moment to his advantage. His guards were tumbled and confused, and he was small enough to slip away. She would have, and then put the fiercest warg to shame in her resistance. She allowed her head to turn a little as she laid her glare on the top of the captive’s curly head, down and bespeaking exhaustion and oblivion to the opportunity beckoning to him. It was enough. She focused back on the journey ahead. It was disgusting how creatures like that always succumbed to despair, running gladly to their deaths because they were too overcome with hopelessness to resist . It was no wonder they preferred prancing around in their fields and woods to fighting. Weaklings like that deserved whatever they got.
Shouts shook the sky, shooting quivering growls of anger and confusion to zip between the timorous grass, twisting around the escaping halfling’s ankles, tripping him. Ugluk’s roar of “Halt!” sliced through the air as orcs crashed over to snatch the filthy runaway. Her stance remained firm, proud, still, a figure cut from terror and muscle, engraved in the air and backed by the rising sun. Normally she’d have been the first to grasp the captive with punitive nails, but now she just stared.
Her gaze remained as the orcs ran on, still more quickly than before, pushing small halflings, near collapse already, into a wild race that led them farther from their beloved home and hope into the dense gloom of their spirits and a fate whose certain horror was only increased by what they didn’t know. All became a blur of sunlight darkened by orcs’ passing, yells of encouragement, the snicking of whips, and the slamming of feet into the surrendering earth, yet still her look stayed. It lingered there for a long time, drifting with the shifting mist, a stare of scorn, of disbelief, of a stubborn one rethinking an opinion, of amusement at mayhem. There was no anger in it. Then the silver, misty strands glided silently into the morning, and all was gone.
Lily’s Note: Again, as this is sort of a new idea for me (serious? no!) I’d appreciate comments and suggestions.