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The Queen's Orc  by jodancingtree

26. Truth Under Darkness

Canohando's gentleness had drawn Malawen to him in spite of her hatred of his kind. She felt as if her dark thoughts rested in his cupped hands, and he was not dismayed by them. Ever since her capture by Orcs she had known herself shamed, defiled. She had been rescued, it was true, and her wounds ministered to, but the other Elves had been loath to meet her eyes. They had pitied her and looked away, and at last she had felt almost unbodied, a ghost walking under the sun. But when Canohando's black eyes rested on her, she was visible and real again.

She hardly recognized him for an Orc anymore; he was her friend, who had wept with her at Undomiel's death and now had rescued her. She shivered. They would have slain me in torment. And I am no more fit for the Halls of Mandos than I am for Tol Eressea.

Canohando looked back and she met his glance, familiar and comforting. She smiled involuntarily and his eyes sparked with answering warmth. She felt suddenly as if this stealthy creeping through the forest were some game of her childhood, and the Orc was her playfellow. Almost she laughed, and pressed her lips tight together to hold in her merriment as she slipped from shadow to shadow behind him.

They reached the band of trees along the River and turned north. It was a narrow swath of woodland; they could see the glint of water off to the right and yet look out at the rolling plain on the other side. It seemed an empty landscape, but still they made their way cautiously under cover, and the third day showed the wisdom of this. A cloud of dust appeared on the horizon, drawing closer to become a hundred wild horses, kept in one herd by stalwart riders with long blonde braids.

"Men of Rohan?" Canohando questioned under his breath. "What are they doing here? Their land is far south of your country, Elfling."

Malawen gnawed on her lip. "They are far from home," she murmured. "They seek new blood for their horse breeding, perhaps, now the Shadow has departed. Stay down, Canohando; they have no love for Elves."

He snorted softly. "Nor for Orcs either, little one. We will not ask them to dinner."

She giggled, stifling the sound against her forearm as she lay flat on the ground. The horsemen passed out of sight.

"Better take shelter now, till we know they are far away," Canohando said. He climbed a tree and slung both their hammocks from the branches; he had woven one for Malawen from a spare coil of rope in his pack. "Come, Elfling, we will eat even though it is not dark yet, and you shall tell me one of your stories. Someday I will play my drum for you, when it does not matter how the sound carries."

The sun went down and they swung lazily in the treetop; it was beginning to leaf out, and they were well hidden. "I will sing you the Lay of the Ring-bearer," she said. "Have you ever heard it?"

"No, but I have heard enough of what it says to know it is far from the truth. Are all your stories of like kind, Elfling, half true and half lies?"

"How would I know?" she countered. "I tell them to you as I heard them, but I was not present at the Sack of Nargothrond!"

He chuckled. "No? But you describe it so well, and you told me you are not a child, for all your littleness."

She feigned sternness. "Be quiet, Orc, and listen, or go to sleep if you do not care to hear it." She reveled in the teasing; thus she had bantered with her father long ago, before the War. Canohando broke off a spray of leaves and tossed it into her hammock.

"Go on, then," he said, and lay quiet listening to her soft voice, trying to sift out the overlay of legend from the tale and find the nuggets of plain fact. I would have despised him as soft, if I had known him from the first, he thought. But long before Malawen's voice faded away, Canohando was pierced to the marrow as he understood at last what Frodo had taken on himself. He had known the end of the story; he had not known the beginning.

"Well? Is any of it true?" Malawen asked. Night had fallen and faint moonlight filtered through the leafy canopy around them. She peered over at the Orc.

Canohando stirred himself, sitting up and waiting until the hammock stopped swaying before he spoke. "Yes, it is true, all of it, or nearly all. True that he had a noble heart, and I will never know why he befriended a greyskin, bloodthirsty and depraved..."

"You are not depraved," Malawen said, fierce in her defense of him, but Canohando had pulled himself up onto the branch next to her, and he stared down, his face black in the shadows.

"I taught him to shoot," he said. "I feared he would starve if ever the old man left him, so I taught him to hunt. He was a good shot in the end, but he hated killing, even for food. While I -- I kill as easily as breathing -- worse than that. I take joy in it; I was born for it." His voice was bitter.

"You kill to protect yourself, or someone else," Malawen said stoutly. "You shot that Orc to save me "

"Yes. And I hunt to survive, when I do not have waybread. But the quiver of living flesh under my knife, the little push to slide the blade home " He groaned. "I try to be careful now, not to take life wantonly: only for food or for protection. But slaughter feeds something inside of me; I hunger for it more than food, sometimes. I am no companion for you, Elfling."

He loomed over her, blocking the moonlight. "I am an Orc. I cannot escape it; I will never escape. And when you said you are Orc-marked you do not understand; you do not know what that means. You have a scar, you are angry at what you suffered; no blame to you for that! But you are clean -- shining and fair and called to Valinor, while I "

He turned and began climbing down out of the tree, clumsy in his haste and bumping his head on a branch. He swore, or so she supposed; anything in the harsh Orkish tongue sounded like imprecation. She stared after him, whispering, "But you're wrong, Canohando. I do know what it means." Then she flung herself out of her hammock and slid down the tree in his wake, reaching the ground and darting after him.

"Don't leave me! Don't leave me, Canohando!"

He kept on as if he had not heard, another ten or twelve steps, and then a low howl broke the silence and he froze. There was another howl just ahead, and Canohando whirled around and ran back, catching Malawen in his arms and boosting her into the nearest tree. "Climb!" he said sharply, and was gone.

She climbed, shivering with fear. When the Orcs invaded Lothlorien she had heard wolves; that was the only time, but she had not forgotten the sound. She kept going higher until the branches in her hands felt too thin and pliant for safety; then she backed down a few feet and sat straddling a sturdy bough, hugging the trunk so hard that the bark scraped painfully against her bare arms. Canohando did not follow and she wondered where he was. The eerie howling seemed to fill the dark void below. She did not dare look down.

There was a caterwaul from the ground, pain and rage, and then a cacophony of yowling and yipping, and Malawen clung to her tree, sobbing in terror. Finally the noises began to move away, until at last everything was silent, and she choked back her tears to listen. Nothing. Not the hoot of an owl, not the faintest moan of any creature. And then Canohando's voice came softly, "Elfling? Climb down now; they are gone."

A moment later he was just below her, holding out his hand, and she unwound herself from the tree trunk and let him help her from branch to branch all the way down. But her knees nearly folded beneath her when she looked around; there were a half a dozen dead wolves scattered about on the ground under the tree, transfixed by arrows.

"Come, Elfling, we will go back to our hammocks. I don't think they will return, but we are safer in the treetop, and there we can rest."

She still gripped his hand and would not let him draw it away. "Don't leave me."

"No." His voice was gentle. "I will not leave. Come, now."

But when they had found their own tree again, she would not sleep alone. Nothing would satisfy her but to crowd into his hammock with him, cuddling under his arm and pillowing her head on his chest.

"I can hear your heart," she said after a while. He grunted and she reached up to rest her hand on his shoulder. "It is a good heart, Canohando. Not depraved."

He did not answer and soon she fell asleep, her breathing soft and regular. Her arm slipped down to her side, but her cheek was still warm against his chest and he stroked her head, his clawed hand feather light on her hair. At length he wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes.

"Elfling," he whispered. "My little Elfling."

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