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The Queen's Orc  by jodancingtree

Chapter 2:  Under Cover of Darkness

Canohando left home as summer ended, the haunting cries of  migrating birds speeding him on his way. "You are quicker than I am, but I'll catch up!" he shouted after one flock.  He shifted his pack to sit more comfortably on his back and trudged on. His spirits had risen now that he was on his way, and at night he slept without dreams.

Gorgoroth was pale gold as far into the distance as he could see, the coming of autumn  turning its grass to straw that rustled against his knees.  He bent down to tear off handfuls of the tasseled seedheads,  rubbing the seeds out between his palms and casting them  to each side as he walked – See, old man, I am still planting for you!   So they had done when he traveled with Ninefingers and the Brown One, but then the patches of grass had been far apart, the seeds few and planted carefully only where there was moisture to make them grow. 

He had planned this journey as carefully as if it had been a campaign of war. Lash's warning was only too true: the Men of Gondor would kill him practically on sight; orcs were no more than vermin to them, fit for destruction. He doubted they would spare him even for the jewel he wore; supposing they found it before they slew him, he thought they would kill him anyway and some captain would take it for his own.

When he reached the Morgai he went more cautiously, traveling from dusk to dawn, sleeping by day.  The Morgai was not barren now; it was a broken landscape of boulders and rocky streams and brushy growth.  There was ample cover for him, and it would have taken a keen eye to see the orc slipping ghost-like from one clump of bushes to the next. 

He had decided against using the Pass of Cirith Ungol.  He knew from Ninefingers that the King was aware of the monster that dwelt there, and he thought it likely the pass would be watched.  Frodo had known of no other way through the mountains, but this was Canohando's home country.  He followed paths that none but a mountain goat – or an orc – could have found. He came out some little way north of the Crossroads, and went to ground like a shadow.

Now he traveled only at night.  Ithilien was a patchwork of fields and villages, but he passed among them unseen.  Occasionally a dog barked, but not more than once: the orc carried a tooth that bit deeper and swifter than any dog.  He dragged the carcasses away and buried them when he got beyond the houses; he did not want the alarm raised when morning came and some smallholder found his watchdog with its throat cut. 

He met a check when he reached the River.  It lay across his path broad and black in the moonlight, the water shining like oil, and he shrank back.  Once in his life he had plunged into a stream and nearly drowned; fear clutched at his belly as he remembered the choking sensation before he had lost consciousness.  He climbed a tree near the riverbank and slung a rope hammock high in the branches; he would have to think about this problem, but sleep came first.

When he woke, it was broad daylight and he lay still in his hiding place, looking up and down the river.  Not far downstream something was floating; as he watched, it came nearer until it reached the bank, and some men jumped ashore.  Canohando had lived all his life where the only streams were un-navigable rapids; he knew nothing of boats, and it took him some time to comprehend what he was seeing: the men controlled the thing in the water; they rode it back and forth across the river.

All day he watched, taking note of how the boatmen used the long paddle fixed to the rear of the ferry.  At nightfall the men went away, and Canohando rolled up his hammock and came down from the tree. He untied the boat and crossed the River, nearly tipping himself into the water several times.  When he was a stone's throw away from shore, the paddle snagged on something.  He yanked at it and it came free with a suddenness that jerked it out of his hands and threw him backward.  He teetered for a dreadful moment off-balance and terrified, before he toppled with a noisy splash into the water.

The bottom of the river was soft mud and he thrust against it with hands and feet, certain that his death was upon him but fighting it to the last. He got his feet under him and gave a desperate push; his head broke the surface and he found that he was only waist-deep in the water after all.  He stood trembling and gasping, letting his racing heart return to normal; finally he turned toward the shore and waded out.  The abandoned boat drifted away downstream. 

He moved warily through the darkness, alert for any sign that he had been heard when he splashed into the water, but there was none. He shivered a little as the cool air struck his wet garments; it was winter now, not the bitter cold and deep snow of his mountains, but a dank chill that seemed to creep right inside his bones. Time was passing, and it troubled him as it never had before.

 He had learned more than boat handling in his long day watching from the hammock.  The boatmen had taken their noon meal under his tree, talking as they ate, while Canohando listened above. 

"I'm off to the City next week," one of the men had said cheerfully.  "Plenty of work there for them that wants it – I hear the King's puttin' on a grand show for New Year's."

"New Year's!" one of his companions had exclaimed.  "That's not till the end of March, three months off!  Bit early to be gettin' ready, ain't it?"

"Not this year. They say all the fountains'll be full of wine, all over the city, and feasting for everyone, rich and poor.  Fireworks, too, and fancy visitors from all over, even the King of the Mark, maybe!  It'll take every bit of three months to pull all that off."

"What for, then?  What's all the fuss about?" one of the others wanted to know.

"Listen at him! Didn't you never go to school?  One hundred twenty years it is this year, since Elessar come to the throne.  That's a milestone, wouldn't you say? Worth celebrating, if you ask me!"

Hiding above them, Canohando bit back an exclamation of surprise. Was it really so long since the Dark Lord fell?  Orcs kept no reckoning of years; he knew there had been many turns of season since the earth shook and the Mountain exploded in fire, but that many?  He shut his eyes, remembering Frodo.  There had been some gray in the halfling's hair – Canohando had not realized the significance of that until Lash's wife began to age. Her hair had turned gray, then white, before she died.

One hundred twenty years was a long time, even to an orc. Was there any chance at all that Ninefingers still lived?


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