At first, he had still been able to concentrate on the pain. The physical sensation of it: the impact, the sound the whip made before it struck him, the orcs' low laughter. He'd try to flinch away from the pain as much as possible, feel the hot burn where the rope chafed against his wrists, but there was no escape, and the whip kept falling down with cruel precision.
He kept his eyes firmly closed, unwilling to give the orcs the satisfaction of seeing his pain. His body shuddered every time the heavy leather scoured a new line of red across his back, and he clenched his jaw to keep in his sounds of pain. Already his body was trembling from the effort to withstand the torment. Sweat gleamed on his skin, stung in the welts that had opened and bled tears of blood, and he jerked against his bonds with helpless despair when it did not stop, when the physical sensations seemed to vanish in a haze of painfearpain, when there was no start and no end to the pain that enveloped him with every breath he took, and it became too much and he cried out as they laughed and continued and the whip fell again and again until it seemed that he had never known anything but this.
Tears ran down his face. He sobbed between the strikes of the whip, desperately gulping down air, pulling and pulling at the rope that would not give until his wrists were rubbed raw and ached with the same agony as his bleeding back. There was a hand in his hair then, roughly pulling back his head, the stench of orc breath in his face, and still he could not stop crying. He who had so proudly proclaimed that he would rather die than serve orcs knew true fear for the first time in his life as he hung helplessly from the post, naked where they were armoured, bound where they were armed, bruised and beaten and bleeding where they gaped at him and laughed. He had fought orcs often at home in the Greenwood, had taken many of their lives, had even been wounded on occasion himself, but never had he been a prisoner, and the pain that was without mercy and reason and could not be escaped made him want to beg and plead and promise that he would do anything, anything at all, if only it would stop.
“Don't kill him yet,” he heard dimly through his rough, broken sobbing. “The wizard might want to talk to him again, in a week or two.”
He wanted to beg, to promise to say anything, anything at all, whatever Saruman wanted to hear, but he was choking on his sobs and his tears and could not even breathe. He was little more than an animal in the hand of the butcher as he stared up into the deformed face twisted with ugly glee, the orc's fangs bared in the parody of a smile as he stared into Eluivor's pain-glazed eyes.
“Not so proud now, little elf.”
Eluivor could only weep in humiliated exhaustion, even when they cut him loose so that his body fell to the ground. They laughed again when he tried to get up, a boot on his back forced him back to the ground, and there he remained, too weak to resist, unable to react to their taunts with anything but hopeless tears. All that remained to him was the fear of their whip, the fear of the pain, the terrible awareness of his utter helplessness that made his entire body shudder with dread. There was no escape. Not from this cave, not from the orcs, not from the pain. In that moment, it seemed to him that this would be his entire life until the moment of his death, and as he lay on the cold ground, sharp stones bruising his cheek, he prayed with what little reason remained to him that he would die soon, and quickly, and that those that might remember him would never know how he cried at the feet of orcs.
They left him there on the ground in the end, after his pain and his tears ceased to be entertaining. They did not do him the favour of killing him, and that terrified him, for he knew that they might be back. Even if he crawled back to the cell he shared with Vereyar now, what if they pulled him away from his work again tomorrow?
The thought of Vereyar woke something in him at last. As much as he wanted to remain here on the ground, unmoving until someone came to fulfil his wish and end this life of agony, the thought of Vereyar alone and abandoned could not be borne. How could he give up now when he had pleaded with Vereyar to not surrender to despair? He did not doubt that if he died here now, so would Vereyar. And a man like him should not end like this, alone and forgotten and made small by despair when once he had shown so brightly, a symbol of all a man should aspire to be.
Dragging himself back was agony, but at least there was no one to witness his shame, the tears that came anew when he stumbled, the small sounds of pain at the way every single step sent new torment along the lines of fire burning on his back.
He wiped at his eyes before he went towards where Vereyar was curled up, facing away from him. He wondered if Vereyar had stared at the wall all the time he had been gone. He hoped he had. They had gotten used to the way that every now and then, there were screams in the distance, and certainly the sounds of his own torment could not have carried so far. Somehow it seemed even worse to think of Vereyar knowing how he had cried beneath the whip, more humiliating even than the orcs' laughter at his tears. Vereyar might have told him once not to feel shame for whatever might be done to him here, but how could he not feel shame?
He wondered if Vereyar had eaten, but he could not bring himself to ask. Even if he had not, he did not think that he could make himself force Vereyar to eat when he was barely able to move. Now that he had found his way back to the only place in these caves where he was granted moments of rest, what little strength had remained him after the whipping left him as well, and he laid down on the ground at a distance from Vereyar, careful to keep his back from facing him, and then he buried his face in his arms, and cried as silently as he could before he fell asleep.
Mornings were the worst. Of course, he did not even know if they were mornings, but in this place, the time after he woke from too little hours of rest served just as well even without the sun. Instead, there were sounds coming from the other cells to wake them, the snarls and grunts from overseers dealing with prisoners too slow or too weak to rise quickly and follow, the few begging voices of newcomers crying for water or food.
This was the worst time of the day because Eluivor rose with the full horror of the day that was to come ahead of him. Every day it seemed a mountain that grew and grew until it seemed insurmountable at last, and he trembled with weariness even when he rose from sleep, gaunt and grey with dust as any of the prisoners that might have laboured here for years or centuries. They still took him away sometimes. He never knew when or why. They never asked questions. It was Saruman who had wanted answers, not the orcs, and eventually, he thought, the wizard might ask to see him again, and then he would cast himself at his feet and weep and beg and tell anything he wanted to know. The thought filled him with shame, but he who had wept at the feet of orcs and begged beasts for mercy had no illusions of honour left to cling to. He was no better than any of the other thralls here.
He slept, he worked, he ate what little they were given, he tried to make himself talk to Vereyar to wake him from his stupor, but he never succeeded, and the more exhausted he grew, the less he tried. He envied Vereyar sometimes. Vereyar had given up. Vereyar was simply waiting for death to take him, remaining there on the cold ground instead of doing the work he was expected to do, and as much as Eluivor sometimes prayed for death to release him from the torment of these caves, he was yet too afraid of the pain of the whips to choose Vereyar's way.
He could not see Vereyar suffer beneath the orcs' lash, not yet. Some stubborn part of him, mostly forgotten now as exhaustion and suffering and despair filled the heart that had once been filled with pride and noble ideals, still could not bear to see that noble man suffer as he did, and so every time one of the overseers threatened to kick or beat Vereyar when he was unwilling to rise and do his work, he would interfere, kneeling there in the dust between Vereyar and whatever beast was leering down at them with hoarse promises of how he would make his companion rise and do his work if only they were given a few moments.
Days, if they were days, seemed unending. What few breaks there were between his own work and the work Vereyar had been assigned to he spent with hastily gulping down water, if there was any to be had, or sleeping like a dead man slumped against a barrel until another overseer passed by and saw him. There was always more work to be done, and never enough time, and whenever the lash marks on his back had healed, it seemed to him that another orc would come to drag him away and tie him to the post, until he would shrink in on himself and start trembling whenever one of them even looked at him.
Some days were better than others. Some days he was sent to the kitchens. There were always orcs there, sitting on benches with the smell of burnt, rank meat so heavy in the air that his stomach clenched with the pain of his hunger, but the laughter and the kicks and cuffs he earned as he crawled along the ground to clean what was spilled was nothing compared to the whippings. And there was always food to distract them. Whatever was on their tables was of more importance than another starved thrall crawling along at their feet, so there would often be pieces of bread or bones he could hastily hide beneath his shirt, to share with Vereyar later.
Vereyar would eat, at least, most of the time, and he was glad for that. He would not talk, but if he put a piece of bread into his hands, or a bone where some meat still remained, or a bowl with some of the slops they were fed like animals, it was gone in the mornings. He did not think he could have made himself argue about food, not when every day, from when he woke to when he fell asleep, his stomach ached with hunger.
The days in the kitchens were good days. There were bad days too, when he was struggling from morning until night with heavy kegs full of metal scraps, too weakened by hunger and constant work to carry them for more than a few steps until he needed to rest. It was a constant struggle between the strain in his muscles, the fiery pain of grasping a heavy keg with arms that would sooner or later grow numb and weak, and the pain of the lash should an overseer find him resting for a moment, panting for air that burned his labouring lungs with the acrid smoke of the forges.
There were days like this when he was too weak to even make his way back to their cell, when he would just drop down among the barrels, and he found not true sleep but fainted from exhaustion. Sometimes he would wake after an hour or two and manage to force himself to return to Vereyar, to wearily grab what slops had been left for them and put the bowl in Vereyar's hand before he would curl up with his own. A few times, he could not gather the strength to return to their cell, and he hated himself for it when he woke in the mornings, even though he knew that Vereyar did not care whether he ate or not. In truth, the thought of death became more and more tempting to himself, but a stubborn part of him still clung to life. Maybe it was the simple fear of what might happen to Vereyar, should anything happen to him. What would they do to him, should he not be there to do his work, to make him eat? Death would be a release for both of them, but Eluivor had learned to well what agony these orcs could bring, and the thought of Vereyar weeping and pleading at their feet as he had done so often was too terrible to bear. It was bad enough that all pride had been torn from him. At least so far, he had been spared to see the one friend left to him suffer equal humiliation.
Wearily, Eluivor leaned against a keg when the overseer moved away with a sullen look to return to eat in the kitchens and sleep in the barracks, all of which was denied to him. But at least, it meant that for him, too, the day had ended. All that remained was to force his aching limbs to stand, and to return to their cell, where he prayed that some of the other prisoners would have been forced to distribute their slops. He had not made it back to the cell the last night, too exhausted to crawl back after hours of work in the heat of the forges, and now, after another day of the same torment, he felt dizzy from hunger and exhaustion, praying to the absent Valar for a moment of rest and a piece of bread, or a bowl of congealed, mouldy vegetables. Maybe today, Vereyar would have roused himself, he thought, the image coming to him with strange vividness, like a fever dream. Maybe Vereyar would have grown worried by his absence, maybe he would have lain awake, waiting for him, collecting what slops they were given himself when a captive came to distribute them, maybe he would ask questions about him, worried that he had been taken to see the wizard again...
Eluivor shuddered at the thought. It would change nothing. Even Vereyar would not be able to save him from the wizard. But oh, to receive a smile when he returned, or just a look, a hand to clasp his own for a moment and remind him of all that hope that Vereyar's words had once given him... To know that he was not alone, not forgotten, that he might die here but that there was still one left who knew him for more than the thrall he had become...
He closed his eyes and leaned wearily against the wall, too tired to continue without a moment of rest. There was no true silence here, for there was always the sound of of the forges in the distance, but to be without the constant roar of the fire and the clang of the hammer was blessing enough. After two days near where the iron for the wizard's forces was melted, the air in the tunnels that led to their cells seemed almost sweet.
There was a sound then, and he forced his eyes open. From the path that lead towards the kitchen, a rat had come skittering down to perch on one of the stones that lined the way, its snout raised high as it was sniffing the air. Eluivor did not move, though his heart missed a beat as he stared at it. It had been a long time since he had had meat. There was little time to hunt for rats now, after doing both his and Vereyar's work as well as he could. Sometimes he managed to stop by the barracks when he was sent to the kitchens, but his memory was growing dim in this place of constant torment and fear, and he could not remember how much time had passed since the last time he and Vereyar had been able to feast on roasted rats.
Very, very slowly, he moved closer. His hands were shaking. If he missed this chance... His stomach twisted and turned, hollow and empty like a void filled with blackness and pain. His mouth watered at the memory of the smell of roasted meat, of the juices that would fill his mouth, and then he grabbed the rat before the creature could flee, and he wept with gratitude until he smashed its head against the wall and then buried his teeth in its neck to suck with the despair of a starving man at the blood that escaped the wound, warm and rich and iron-sharp, loathe to waste even a single drop of it.
It took what little strength remained to him to force himself to not gnaw and tear at the raw meat, but he consoled himself with thoughts of how he would roast it in the hot coals of the brazier near their cell, and of how the scent would certainly rouse Vereyar, and how good it would be to share the hot meat over their bowls of slops. It would be a good day, a day where he would not cry himself to sleep, and he wept again as he hid the small corpse beneath his shirt with reverence, fingers trembling at the precious secret he would now have to carry back safely, past any and all orcs who might think to wrest his food away from him. But he could not give this up, not even if they beat him, he thought, hungrily licking at the blood that coated his lips, nearly moaning with the pain of his hunger as he thought of the smell and the taste of it roasting. No, no, this was a good day, the best day, they would eat and they would not be hungry and maybe Vereyar would touch him and talk to him and he would no longer be alone with his shame, and maybe Vereyar would have a plan at last to escape this place and he would never have to know how Eluivor had cried and begged and pleaded.
The rat was still warm against his skin. It was a good day. It was a very good day.