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Frodo thought he would have known the older boy for Lash's son, had he met him in a courtyard in Minas Tirith. The little one was another matter. He had the grey skin and barrel chest, the misshapen ears an orc, without question. And yet the child was not ugly. His facial features were like his mother, his teeth white and straight, his eyes Frodo glanced at the woman who sat by the fireplace, stirring something in an iron pot, and she gazed back at him boldly. No, her eyes were blue.
The child had his father's black eyes, but they were beautiful, huge and expressive. How was it he had never noticed Lash's eyes?
"Do we meet with your approval, Light-bearer?"
He flinched. "Don't call me that! Please." She smiled.
"What then? Ninefingers? That is what Canohando calls you. Or Donkey, like the Healer?"
"My name is Frodo." She resented him, and he wondered why. He'd only met her last night, when the orcs had carried them off home, their hospitality as irresistible as an Orkish raiding party would have been.
"Frodo Ninefingers, and you destroyed the Great Ring and brought down the Dark Lord, and flew away like an Eagle when you were done. How is it that you walk the earth like an ordinary mortal, Frodo Ninefingers? On hairy feet that are too big for you."
The boy was walking, not too steadily yet. He still caught for support at things around him, and now he clutched Frodo's knee, gazing up at him, the beautiful dark eyes full of light. Frodo forgot the mother's antagonism in his delight at the child.
"What is your name, little one?" he asked, not really expecting an answer. But the boy giggled and puckered up his lips.
"Phro!" he said. "Phro! Doe!"
Frodo looked across at the woman, stunned. He was afraid to ask if he had heard correctly, and she laughed at him.
"Oh, you heard him all right! That is his name Frodo. So what do we call you, hey? Your name's already taken, in this house."
It was too ridiculous, and he laughed. "You had better call me Donkey, I suppose. Radagast has called me that for many years, and it suits well enough."
Radagast was out on the mountain somewhere with the orcs, trying to find a suitable place to plant athelas. It was almost the first thing Canohando had said this morning, asking that the herb be planted here.
"If you had been with us, old man, with your bag of herbs he lived an hour, maybe, after he fell "
Frodo's heart had twisted with pity. An hour, with such a wound! Lash had whispered to him that Yarga had been cloven nearly in two. Oh, Yarga
"I doubt I could have saved him, Canohando. There are limits, you know, even to my leechcraft. But come, we will find a spot for your athelas."
The older lad, a child of seven or thereabouts, had gone with them. He was all orc in appearance, but he had a ready smile and laughed easily. Lash had introduced him last night when they came in, but the younger one had been asleep.
"My son, Yargark. In Yarga's place."
It had taken Frodo a moment to understand. "In Yarga's to take the place of Yarga?"
"He is the third orc. Yarga is dead, but Yargark is in his place. It is to keep him with us." And Frodo was struck once again by the bond that united these orcs, a race that was supposed to be incapable of tenderness.
The mother in her smoldering resentment reminded him more of Yarga than the orcs did, and he wondered how he could placate her. The babe was climbing his leg, and he gave him a boost onto his lap. The little orc pulled himself up, his bony knees digging painfully into Frodo's thigh, catching him around the neck with fingers that gripped like iron. He had the orc claws all right.
"Why have you come here, Frodo Donkey?" the woman asked.
He held the child a little away from him, the better to breathe, and made a noise with his lips, trying if he could make him laugh. A crow of glee rewarded him, and then the child was imitating him, breaking into giggles with each effort.
"I don't know," he answered. "I wanted to see how they did, but I have wanted that before without going after them. This time I don't know. I was drawn; I could not stay away." He met her eyes. "I am sorry if our presence makes more work for you, Mistress. We need not remain above a few days; indeed, the winter is coming, and my master likes to spend his winters where it is warm."
She stared at him. "Your master? The old man? They told me you were no slave."
"Not a slave, no." He wondered himself why he had referred to Radagast in that way. Radagast was his friend.
Sam had been his friend, and Sam had never failed to call him master. Master, or Mr. Frodo. It had been irksome at times, especially after the Quest, when such niceties of social position had seemed ludicrous between them. Sometimes he had wanted to protest, but it would have distressed Sam and would not have changed his long-established habit, so he refrained.
Now suddenly he understood. As Sam was to me, so I to you, Radagast, he thought. I follow you wherever, as Sam did me, and whatever your task may be, it is mine as well. Only this once have I forged ahead of you to go the way I myself chose and in truth I did not choose it. I was drawn, as I told her.
He looked at the woman, curious what had brought her here, to give herself to an orc and be his wife. The question must have been too plain on his face, and her chin lifted defiantly.
"He is kind," she said. "He is kinder than many of the men in my village, and especially kinder than my brother-in-law, who would have taken me for his wife after my sister was killed, had I remained in Nurn."
"Lash was always kind, even when I first met him," Frodo agreed. "I doubt he was ever an ordinary orc, from the very beginning."
The child was playing with the buttons on his shirt, and then slipped his hand between the buttons and found Arwen's jewel where it hung around Frodo's neck. He tugged, and Frodo reached up and caught the little hand, pulling it out of his shirt and raising it to his lips. "No, no, laddie can't have that!"
"Here, give him to me," the mother said sharply. "You need not let him climb all over you; you are a guest in this house." She set the child down firmly on the floor under the table and handed him a straight stick and a little stone. "There, Frodo, smooth your arrow. Lash will want to see it when he comes."
Frodo looked at the babe in surprise. "Is he making arrows already? How old is he?"
"Orc children learn their skills early. He is already beginning to track." She was silent, watching the child, then she burst out as if she could not help herself, "What was he like, this Yarga who was killed? Lash is content, with me and his children, but Canohando still mourns him, nine years later. Was he so wonderful, Light-bearer?"
Frodo sighed and took up the poker, stirring the fire absently as he tried to think how to answer. He did not want to malign the dead, and yet
"He was not like Lash," he said finally. "He had been in Lugburz, one of those who tormented the Dark Lord's prisoners. He was still angry at the change that had come to Mordor, but he loved Lash and Canohando. Canohando especially well, you can see that, in how he died." He hesitated. "He hated me. It came hard to him, not to slay me."
She gave a short, bitter laugh. "I think I can sympathize with him in that. You're a bit too good for this world, aren't you? An ordinary person might feel more at ease in the world, with you out of it."
Frodo was at a loss for any answer. She met his gaze for a long moment, then her eyes dropped and she twisted the folds of her full skirt between her hands, looking at the floor.
"I think you have been listening to too many tales about me, Mistress," he found his voice at last. "I told you not to call me Light-bearer! I am a broken-down Donkey who found some healing in the wilderness, no more than that." He got up and went outside, walking a short way from the house and leaning wearily against a tree.
The orcs were well; he could put his mind at ease now. The sooner he and Radagast left this place, the better.
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