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The Queen's Orc  by jodancingtree

Chapter 3. Dangers

Once past the river, Canohando found the going more difficult. The country here was a maze of small houses surrounded by garden plots, or occasionally large houses with broad stretches of ground to set them off from their neighbors, but these tended to have stone walls around them as well. He could climb the stone easily enough, but he was wary of being trapped within the walls, in case someone kept watch inside to repel intruders. There were not many areas of open land where he could be sure of meeting no one between dusk and dawn.

Worst of all were the taverns, set close beside the road and brightly lit most of the night, with men going in and out. Canohando would circle miles out of his way to avoid passing one of these. Sometimes, however, he could find no way around and would be forced hide until the place closed, the lights finally extinguished, a few late revelers staggering down the street.

He feared drunkenness. In the old days, when he had been messenger in the service of the Dark Lord, he had been permitted nothing stronger than weak beer: he had to be ready at any time to set out across Mordor, not following the road but taking the quickest way he could find across country. A few times he had gotten access to stronger drink; not being used to it, he had been very sick, and on one occasion he’d been caught by his captain. He had received a savage beating in punishment for making himself unfit for duty, and after that he had contented himself with the small beer issued to him. Most of the other Orcs, however, drank heavily. In their off hours they were likely to be drunk, and the drunker they were, the more brutal. Canohando was smaller than many of them, one of a breed of mountain Orcs native to Mordor. He was an easy target for their rough play.

He had nearly forgotten the old days now; the peace of his mountain home, the deep affection between himself and Lash's family, had covered over the painful memories. Now the sight and sound of drunken men brought the past vividly to mind once more. Crouched in a dark gap between two houses, waiting for the tavern down the street to close for the night, his thoughts went back to Frodo.

Ninefingers had been prisoner of Orcs in the watchtower of Cirith Ungol. Canohando knew the place only too well: he had carried messages to that fortress more than once, and he had dreaded being sent there. The Orcs of the garrison had walked in terror of the monster that laired beneath their tower, and their fear had made them cruel even by Orc standards. Canohando had never seen any of them less than half drunk. A gang of them had caught him once, after he had delivered his message.

"Hey, no more use for this one, lads! They won't miss him, where he came from, and Her Ladyship's hungry! What say we toss him to her, turn her up sweet for a few days?"

That idea had gotten a roar of soused approval, and they had started to drag him away. Nearly fainting with terror, Canohando had pretended to faint in truth, and when his tormentors let go of him for an instant to take a firmer grip, he had broken free and run for his life. How did you survive, runt, among such devils? He rested his head on his knees and shut his eyes. My poor runt! But Lash and I did you no harm, and I saved you from Yarga. Have we repaid you for what you suffered at the hands of Orcs?

He must have dozed, for when he lifted his head again the tavern was dark and everything was quiet. He stood up and passed along the street without a sound. He was nearly to the end of the row of houses when he tripped and fell heavily on top of something, a heap of rags that stank of beer and vomit – no, not rags, a man, sodden with drink. Canohando rose to his knees, drawing his knife.

He has not seen me. The drunk mumbled and buried his face in his arms, and Canohando tensed, but the man did not seem to waken. He may be pretending; he may raise the alarm as soon as I am out of sight. Better to be sure - He rolled the drunk over on his back, unfastening the thick woolen cloak to expose his throat. The man's head lolled to one side, his eyes closed. His hood fell back, revealing a young face without a beard, very pale in the moonlight, and Canohando hesitated. A gust of wind swept down the street, making him shiver. How if I take that warm cloak away from you; will that wake you up? He yanked on the woolen fabric, one hand over the drunk's mouth in case he raised a shout, but there was no need. The man was limp; his only response to the rough handling was a weak moan. Canohando shook him again, hard, to be sure. Very well, youngling, I will give you a chance. I will take your cloak but not your life; perhaps next time you will have the sense to get home before you go to sleep.

He got to his feet, still watching the drunk for any sign of returning consciousness, wrapping the cloak around himself and pulling up the hood. The young man slept on, unknowing. At last Canohando turned away. He kept his knife at the ready for the first mile or so, but finally he sighed and slipped it back in its sheath. That was for you, runt, he thought. In the old days I would have killed without a second thought; I would not have taken a chance on him… But he was not sorry that he had let the man live, and he snugged the hood closer about his neck, grateful for its warmth. I showed him mercy, he thought, and that realization warmed him as much as the heavy wool.

The cloak did more than protect him from the cold. Hidden under its folds he felt safer; he pulled the hood down over his forehead, and in the dark he thought he might pass for a man well enough. He was broader in the shoulders and a little shorter than most of these southerners; the tribesmen of his home mountains had not been so tall, but there was no reason for anyone to look closely at him. He became bolder, hanging around outside the taverns, hoping to hear more talk of the coming New Year celebration.

He was deep inside Gondor now, but he still did not know where to find the Elf-queen. He might wander here for months, until he was caught and slain out of hand. He needed information.

And now he began to realize that the drunkenness of these late merry-makers was not a danger to him, but greater safety. They lurched out of the taverns at closing time, watching their feet to keep from tripping on the uneven cobblestones, and no one questioned why Canohando was lounging against a tree or a housefront a few doors down the street. One night a man stumbled as he passed, and without thinking the orc put out a hand and caught him, stopped him from falling.

“Thank’ee, sir,” the man slurred, “thank’ee kindly. The ship’s a mite rocky tonight.”

Canohando snorted in amusement from the depths of his hood. This drunk, at any rate, did not sound like a threat. He put his arm round the man’s waist, careful to shroud his hand, with its grey skin, in a fold of his cloak.

“Where do you live, Man? I will see you get home safe.”

“Oh, that’s a kindly deed, sir, aye it is. There’s a few good folk on land, no matter what they say. Two streets down, only a step, and that’s where I berth. See me safe home and I’ll have a copper for you.”

True to his word, when they reached his door the man fished in his pocket and extracted a coin. “Aye, well, t’ain’t a copper after all; it’s a silver penny! Never mind, then, you’ve earned it, young fellow. Take it and have a drink on me - see you drink the health of old Sarry, mind!” He opened the door and tottered inside, pulling it shut behind him.

The next day, hidden in his hammock in the high branches of a tree, Canohando examined the coin. There were faces engraved on it, on one side a stern-looking man wearing a crown, but on the obverse was a woman's face of delicate beauty, and her only ornament was the smooth hair framing her forehead and cheeks, graceful as a bird's wings. Canohando grimaced at the man's face.

The King. A fit commander for the hosts of Gondor. But at the woman's face he gazed for a long time. She wore no crown, but he had no doubt that this was the Elf-queen, who had given her jewel to Ninefingers for his comforting. I wonder what you said, when you heard he had given it to me? But the image on the coin looked out at him calmly, and he could not decide if she would have been angry or not.

A few nights later he fell in step beside another drunk who was making his unsteady way down the street in the dark. Beneath his cloak the orc held his knife unsheathed, ready to make a quick end if it looked like trouble. He must find the Queen, or his long pilgrimage was in vain.

"Are you going to the King's New Year celebration?" he asked the man.

The drunk lurched to a stop. "And what's it to you if I am?" He swayed, staring truculently at the dark-cloaked figure beside him. "Got some interest in my business, have ye?"

Canohando moved a step closer. "I hear there's work for any man who wants it. Do you know anything about that?"

The drunk spat in the street and hiccupped. "There's always work, my hearty, for anyone that wants it! Got nothin' to do with me, because I don't want it, y'see?"

Canohando kept a grip on his patience."And if I want some of that work, do you know where I'd go to get it?" he asked.

The man guffawed. "You wants to work, do ye? Dirty yer hands and break yer back so's the King can throw a party? Go on up the city, then, and tell'im you've come to help him out! He'll be pleased to see you, and any of your fool friends you care to bring along!" He turned and began to shuffle away, but Canohando kept up with him.

"One more question. Which way is this city, where I'll find the King?"

At that the man stopped to peer at him in amazement, and the Orc's hand tensed on his knife. "Well, you are a half-wit and no mistake! If you can't find Minas Tirith that sticks out like the nose on your face in the middle of Pelennor Plain, I reckon even the King won't have no use for you! You'd better crawl back beneath whatever rock you was under and go back to sleep." He staggered off, showing no more interest in the Orc.

Canohando faded back into the shadows, watching after him in case he showed any sign of raising the alarm, but after half a dozen steps the man tripped over his own feet and fell. He tried clumsily to get up again, wavered for a moment on his knees, and then sagged gently to the ground. The Orc smiled grimly and sheathed his knife. "You'd do better to crawl under your rock before you go to sleep," he said, and turned away.

He avoided people after that, drunk or not. If the man thought the King's city was so easy to find, he should not have any difficulty. He had found his way back and forth across the emptiness of Mordor often enough, running the Dark Lord’s errands. For the next few days he watched carefully from his refuge in the treetops, trying to see which way most of the carts and foot traffic on the roads seemed to be headed. If there was so much preparation for the New Year going on in the city, there should be many people going that way.

He saw Minas Tirith at last from far across the plain, hidden in his hammock at break of day. As the sun came up, the walls of the city gleamed white as a snowfield in the mountains, making him blink and rub his eyes. Mt. Mindolluin bulked behind it, purple against the sky, and the city itself was almost like a mountain, rising tier upon tier to a pinnacle of shining stone, and at the summit a tower that caught the rays of the sun and flashed like crystal. From its tip a black banner whipped in the morning breeze. Canohando sat up, his hammock rocking dangerously at the sudden movement, and stared open-mouthed at the city he had journeyed so far to find.

This - this! - was the home of the Elf-queen. He fumbled in his pouch and pulled out the silver penny that held her image, looking from it back to the white walls shimmering in the distance. Oh yes, it was a fitting home for her, that shining citadel: a graceful setting for her beauty.

Death waits for me in that city, he thought, and he shivered, but did not look away. They will surely slay me, but first I will see you, Elf-queen! And then you may have your jewel again, for I shall not need it. He had seen enough of Gondor now, to understand what evil the Dark Lord had purposed here. I was in His service, he thought in despair. Ninefingers forgave me that, but the King will not.

It took him another night to cross the plain, and in the gray dawn he climbed a tree in a garden just outside the city walls, where he could keep an eye on the great gates. This day he left his hammock rolled up in his pack; he did not sleep, but observed the traffic going into the city and the movements of the soldiers who guarded the gates. He did not think he could slip by them, however cautious he might be. The guards seemed courteous enough, but there was no cart they did not casually look into, and he saw them stop a number of travelers and question them, before they waved them on. His cloak would no protection from their sharp eyes.

At nightfall the gates swung shut, guarded within and without. Canohando slid down the shadowed side of his tree and circled around the city till he was as far from the gates as he could get; then he went up and over the wall as furtive as a stray cat.

If I were King, he thought, I would make my home at the very top, where my soldiers could rally to me and we could make a stand, if enemies came. He did not bother to follow the wide street that wound its way to the summit, but sought out the wall that encircled the next level and climbed it. One level after another, he penetrated to the heart of Minas Tirith, silent as moonlight, and there was no one in the city aware that an orc had entered there.

At last he stood at the edge of a wide pavement open to the sky. In the center was a spreading tree and beside it a fountain, the leaping water catching the moon's gleam as it splashed into its pool. Canohando stood for a moment listening, carried back by the sound to the swift little streams of his mountains, the home he had abandoned. Why have I come here? His hand sought the jewel at his throat, as it had for so many years whenever he was troubled, and he nodded slowly. To see the Lady whose jewel I wear, whatever follows after.

Across the courtyard armed men stood motionless before a pair of tall doors. Canohando felt his way through the shadows around the perimeter of the courtyard and into the gap between the guarded building and its neighbor. The wall was blank, smooth stone all the way to the roof, and he continued around the corner to the rear. There was a wide, arched window there, but it was high up and covered over with leaded glass. On the other side of the building he found what he sought: a row of windows open to the night, no farther above his head than the height of two men. He dug in his pack for a long rope with a hook fastened at one end, and within a few minutes he was standing on the windowsill and stepping down inside the room.

It was empty, or at least there were no people there. A broad, long room, the high roof supported by pillars that marched in two rows from one end to the other, from the arched doorway to a raised dais at the far end, upon which stood two great carved chairs. High above the chairs, just below the roofline, was the arched window. Moonlight struck through it, glowing faintly in muted colors. But just over the chairs was a stone canopy, carved to resemble a crowned helm.

Canohando stared around him, coiling up his rope, awe sinking into his heart till he felt frozen to the marble floor. At last with an effort he broke free of the spell and stepped out into the aisle between the pillars; slowly, with his eyes on the two thrones, he advanced up the hall. Here they will slay me, he thought again, but it was a better place to die than in the Spider’s lair. One chair for the King, and one for the Queen - but which is hers? But when he reached the foot of the dais he knew, for one chair held a heap of silken cushions. He sat down on the bottom step and gazed up at the Queen’s throne, trying to picture the Lady of the coin sitting there.

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