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The Queen's Orc  by jodancingtree

29. Pride

Itaril himself came to search Canohando.

"What acquaintance do you have with Elrond's son, Greyskin?" he demanded. But his lip curled in scorn when Canohando described how he and Elladan had shared command of the Queen's Company, for the protection of Arwen Undomiel.

"Men! Arrogant and easily deceived. The First-born are not so quickly taken in."

"It was the Elf-Queen who befriended me first, before the King did," said Canohando.

"The Queen of Gondor, you had better say, who was half-Elven only, like her father. And Elrond had wisdom to choose the better part and side with the Eldar. His daughter let herself be swept away by passion for a mortal, and so she is undone. Even such wisdom as she had failed her at the last, that she gave credence to an imp of Darkness."

Blind fury surged through Canohando, so that he was grateful for the ropes that held him secure against the tree. If he had been unfettered, of a certainty he would have slain the Elf-captain where he stood. That such a one should dare malign the Lady, fair as she was and wise beyond all telling! The grief he had been holding at bay since Arwen's burial backed into his throat, choking him, and it was a moment before he could speak.

"The Darkness runs behind me, but I flee," he growled at last. "Are you sure that it does not follow behind you as well? But you are too proud to run from it."

Itaril stepped forward and landed a heavy blow across the Orc's face, snapping his head around and raising a purple weal along his cheekbone. "Be silent, devil! Erenu, Galuir, strip him down to his filthy skin: let us see what secrets he carries. We should have done that first of all."

They found the ranger's cloak-pin and the safe-conduct Elladan had given him, and Itaril held them out between the tips of his fingers as if they stank.

"So you are a ranger now, are you? And why not, they were ever a ragtag lot. Very well, Ranger Orc, you may keep your pin." He thrust it through Canohando's tunic and threw it back at him, with his breeches. "Cover yourself, that we need not look on your ugly hide. But the authority of the son of Elrond, no. That I will not return to you, lest you escape and use it to deceive someone of less judgment than Itaril of Eryn Lasgalen." He ripped the safe-conduct in halves and quarters, over and over until nothing was left but fragments of white, and these he cast from him so they fluttered away, settling to the ground like snow.

"Bind him again," he commanded. "And keep that girl away from him. If his tale be true, he beguiled the very Queen of Gondor, who had a name for wisdom once on a time. How much more easily will he lure this ill-favored changeling. The mark of the Enemy is branded already on her cheek."

Canohando said nothing as they tied him once more to the tree.

For two or three days after that he did not see Malawen, although he heard her sometimes, raging and pleading by turns to be allowed to come to him. It was agony to hear her distress and be powerless to help, and he tried to close his ears to her voice, to think of his own difficulties. His feet burned like fire and now his hands pained him as well, swollen from being bound behind him day and night. Thirst was a continual torment. Erenu made sure to feed him, but he lacked patience to hold the wineskin long enough for Canohando to drink his fill. It was not wine anyway but water, that the Orc craved, and he imagined it as he ran beside the horses: a wide stream sparkling in the sunshine, deep and cold and winding away to the horizon. He saw himself wading in up to his waist, ducking his head to take long gulps, hardly coming up for air. I would drink it dry, he thought longingly.

He had thought it would be easy to escape, but he found that it was not. By day he was flanked on all sides by Elves who would be prompt to put an arrow in his back if he tried to break away. At night he was trussed against a tree, hardly able to do more than wiggle his fingers, trying to bring the circulation back into his hands.

The discomfort and his worry for Malawen kept him awake, and the dark was like a wolf prowling around him, seeking an opening to bring him down. From his childhood Elves had been his deadly foes, until Ninefingers gave him Arwen's jewel, and its healing influence touched him to wonder and reverence. He had gone in search of his Queen and worshipped her, and he treasured his Elfling as his own life. But his captors were Elves as well, arrogant and unheeding. The dark hours crept by, and he fought against the images that crowded his mind, what he would do to Itaril, to all of them, if he were free.

One morning as they started out there was a scuffle a little to the rear, and Malawen's voice rang above the rest, shrill with panic. "No! Let go of me – I will go to him, you cannot stop me –!" There was a noise like a whip crack and she screamed, and Canohando turned and began pushing his way toward her. Erenu shouted and jerked on the rope to restrain him, but for a moment it seemed the Orc would drag horse and all in his wake until he reached her. Then the horse planted its feet and backed, and Canohando was forced to a halt.

"Who is the Orc here?" he bellowed. "She is one of your own, and will you torment her yourselves like imps of the Black Pit? The Valar avenge her, if you harm that child!"

There was a sudden, dreadful hush. Then Itaril appeared, and the Elves on their horses crowded aside to make way for him.

"You curse us by the Valar, do you? By what right do you name them, devil?"

A moment more and I will go down in a hail of arrows, Canohando thought. But first I will be heard.

"By the right of the First-Born," he said aloud. "My ancestors were Elves as well as yours, under the stars of Cuiviénen. They fell into slavery and darkness, but it was not of their choosing. What you do to that girl you do of your own will, so be warned, Itaril of Eryn Lasgalen: even you may fall!"

Itaril stared at him without answer, and Canohando shifted his feet to stand more firm, squaring his shoulders. The moment stretched out toward infinity, and when it seemed that something, anything, must happen to break the tension, something did.

There was a confusion of shouts and cries, horses milling together, and then one horse broke out of the melee, running as if the very wolves of Morgoth gave pursuit, away into the west. And pressed against its back, clinging to the mane, was Malawen, her pale hair streaming out behind her like the tail of a comet.

Canohando gazed after her in wonder and relief, joy leaping in him like a fountain. She is free; she is safe! He hardly heard Itaril's next words.

"So she got away. Would you say I am out of danger now, demon? I will not fall into darkness by treating you as you deserve. The Valar will take no vengeance on your account."

The Elves around them looked at one another nervously, their horses plunging and sidestepping as if they sensed their riders' disquiet.

"The Holy Ones send that there is no need for vengeance," said Galuir. "Do you wish someone to go after her, Itaril, or shall we take the Orc alone to Celeborn?"

"What use in that?" Itaril asked. "Celeborn will not thank us for the gift of an Orc, and without the girl we cannot prove collusion. Neither do I wish to take time to track her down and recapture her. Slay him and be done; he is of no use to us."

Galuir looked from Canohando to Erenu, still holding his tether. "Has he offered you violence, Erenu? Has he been abusive, after the manner of Orcs, or attempted escape?"

"No. Today he tried to go to the girl's aid when she screamed. Apart from that he has given no trouble, nor even complained, although his wrists have rope-burns and his feet bleed from running on the stones."

"What matters that?" Itaril broke in. "He is an Orc, a creature of the Enemy. How have we ever dealt with Orcs, except to slay them?"

Galuir looked down at his hands, pulling thoughtfully on his fingers. "You are my Captain, Itaril, yet that is for this mission only. At Thranduil's court we rank as equals, and so I will speak my mind in this.

"If we had slain him on sight, it had been justified: he is an Orc, as you say, and an enemy. But we made him captive, and so learned that he is in high favor with the great ones of Gondor, albeit the reason for that is unclear. That child who fled from us looks to him as a protector. And who ever heard of an Orc who calls on the Holy Ones for justice? Something here I do not understand, and until we know more I say we must not slay him. The Valar themselves may have an eye on him."

"You have a rich imagination, kinsman," Itaril said with a sneer. "Yet if it ease your mind and satisfy this company, we will bring him to Rivendell. I doubt Celeborn will be pleased to see him."

He kicked his horse, urging him to the front of the column, and Erenu tugged on Canohando's rope to bring him alongside. The rest of the Elves straggled into their places and they started out, Itaril and Galuir in the fore. Galuir leaned slightly toward his Captain, as if he spoke, but Itaril sat stiff and straight, watching the road ahead.

That night Erenu made the Orc sit down on the ground before he lashed him to the tree. "Ease your feet a little, Greyskin. I like it in you, that you tried to help the girl, and I am not sorry that she got away."

"Why is Itaril so set against her?" Canohando asked. "I had thought her people would show compassion for her, wounded as she is."

Erenu shrugged. "He had a sister once, I heard. When evil first started coming into Greenwood, brother and sister were among a group making merry under the stars, and Orcs fell upon them – they found her later, with many others..." His voice trailed off. "I do not know. Like you, I would expect him to show pity, and all the more so for his sister's sake. But Elves do not love ugliness of mind or body, and she is deformed in both."

Canohando thought of Malawen, her bright face and the ever-changing colors of her eyes. He is trying to be kind, he thought, but he is hard as adamant, and blind with pride.

Erenu looked at the Orc oddly when he did not answer, and then he walked away. But Canohando writhed against the tree, trying to find a position that didn't hurt, holding Arwen and Itaril side by side in his mind. Both had suffered, but Arwen had been made more gentle by it, and Itaril – but perhaps Itaril had always been hard.

And what about you, Queen's Orc? More gentle, or more hard? He shut his eyes, trying to see the Lady's face again, and the King's. He was a strong leader, but he was not pitiless. And my runt was no weakling.

In the deep night, when the camp lay sleeping, something touched his face and woke him. He opened his eyes a slit, trying to see what it was, and then wide open, in glad astonishment, to find Malawen on her knees beside him.

"Hush, I'll get you free," she whispered, and crept around behind the tree. He felt a tugging on the ropes that held him, as she tried to cut them with her knife. She seemed to be having trouble; he was securely bound, it might have been twenty turns of rope around the tree and each one knotted separately, so every individual cord had to be cut in order to free him. Malawen sawed at them doggedly for a long while and then she gave a gasp.

"What is it, Elfling?" He twisted, trying to see behind him to where she was, but he was still held tight.

"Nothing; I cut myself a little. Elbereth, but it's bleeding! Wait, I'll have to tie it up before I can do this…"

There was a sudden shout from where the horses were picketed, and a torch lit the darkness in that direction. Malawen scurried around the tree to Canohando, sucking on her wounded hand. "Name of light! They've found my horse – how will we get away now?"

"Get out of sight, Elfling; they'll be here next. They know you'll come to me." Canohando strained to see her face in the dark. "You should have stayed away; you were safe –"

"I don't feel safe when you're not with me." She put her hands on his shoulders for an instant, planting a kiss on his forehead. "Wait till it quiets down, and I'll come back. I'll get you loose." Then she was gone, and he heard the leaves rustling above him as she took refuge in the tree.

He had just time enough to wonder if they were coming, before they were there, a dozen torches and Itaril and Galuir in front. No one spoke to him, but they examined his ropes and pulled on them, finding many that had been cut through and Malawen's knife where she had dropped it when she gashed her hand.

"So, he makes no attempt to escape?" Itaril's voice was triumphant. "Lucky that the horses whickered greeting to the one she stole, else she would have had him clean away, and both of them up to whatever devilry they were bent on when we captured them."

"You do not know that it was devilry," said Galuir.

"Nor do you know that it was not. The girl is gone again, but we have the Orc – for the moment. We may not have him long, however, if she keep coming back to rescue him. Slay him now and be done with it."

"No!" Malawen shrieked from the branches above them. An arrow tore through the leaves and stuck in the ground at Itaril's feet. "Let him go, or the next one will pierce your heart!"

There was a roar of outrage from the gathered Elves, and several of them caught up their bows and fired into the branches. A wild laugh answered them from above. "You cannot see me, but I see you!" Malawen taunted. A second arrow struck into the earth in front of Itaril.

"Elfling, stop!" Canohando's voice slashed through the uproar, and silence fell like a blanket. He met Itaril's eyes, holding him by sheer force of will.

"The Queen of Gondor ordered me to Rivendell, and there we were journeying when you made us captive. I still would go there at her command, and to that very place you wish to take us. Let the little one walk unbound beside me, for she beats against fetters like a wild bird. I will be hostage for her good behavior, and we will abide whatever fate your Celeborn decrees for us."

Itaril regarded him sourly. "You do not ask to walk free yourself," he observed.

"You would not grant that, if I did ask. I can endure the bonds."

The Elf-captain's eyes bored into him, but Canohando did not look away. At length Itaril said, "So be it. If she come down and surrender her weapons and give her oath not to run away, she may walk unbound. But I hold you to your word, Greyskin. If she escape again, I will have your blood."

Canohando inclined his head, a commander accepting terms of truce.

"Are you listening, Elfling?" he called. "Will you come down and be surety for me?"

Malawen's voice was like shattering ice. "You must swear to let me stay with him, Itaril of Mirkwood. By Elbereth you must swear it."

The anger that seemed never far from Elf captain blazed in his eyes, but Erenu said quietly, "It will be less troublesome guarding them if they are together, and I think she will stay by the Orc."

"Celeborn should question them, Itaril. There is something here that bears looking into," Galuir added.

Itaril made a wry face. "You may be right. We have delayed too long already, dealing with them. I wish to reach the Havens before the end of summer, and I will be glad to hand these two over to Celeborn. Very well," he shouted up at Malawen. "By Elbereth I swear, you shall stay with the greyskin, and may you live to rue your allegiance to him! Now come down and let us get some rest before the night is spent."

But when she climbed down and handed over her bow, she gave him a look of pure hatred. And he on his part kept his word and did not order her bound, yet he set three Elves to guard her and Canohando the rest of the night, and every night thereafter.

But in truth it was doubtful if they even noticed the guards. Malawen huddled close to the Orc, spreading her cloak over both of them as far as it would reach, and as the torches were doused and the camp quieted, they fell asleep leaning one against the other, well content only to be together.

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