Not the fires, not fires, no.
"Yes," said the voice that the north wind blew into her head.
* * *
Jherrnêl came back from the high place at daybreak covered in gooseflesh all over, and gouges down the side of her head that her nails had raked over her ears all the way to her shoulders, over the older scars there already were. She went straight for the pot over the fire. When she'd had her fill and had taken Ogrêp's medicine flask, she kicked Ogrêp straight from the nook she'd found herself, the best one under the overhang that didn't catch the full draft of frost air, and rolled herself into the furs to sleep. Ogrêp glowered at her and rubbed her ribs, grinding her teeth all the while.
"Skai! Just as bad the white-skins that didn't turn! Years and years since the Star-Lake and that one's still as merciless!" The others laughed, the ones that weren't too busy, that, but Tîzûsh kicked the kettle with the iron cap on her boot until it rang and everyone looked, and even Jherrnêl glared up one yellow eye and snarled wordlessly.
"What'd HE say! We all know HE's been in your head, tried to cover your ears, didn't work, tried to claw them off! Tell us what HE said, the day's long enough to snore away later!"
"Fire from the mountains, and that's all! Shut up, or I'll shove that boot you're so proud of where it's ever dark! Wanna see you letting HIM into your head, voice like thunder and too much light from the iron crown to bear or make sense of in waking, but – you can't, runt of your litter that you are! Wouldn't have made it at all if your sister hadn't been all tark-like false noble and shared her food, would you! Something's gone crooked in both your heads!"
Snarls echoed under the overhang. Nearly Ûrzûsh and Tîzûsh would have taken their dirks to Jherrnêl and made a portion of meat from her, if not for so much luck. Thunder went across the sky from the north and a fork of lightning after, and Ûrzûsh fell on her face like a rock. Tîzûsh cowered, and the others glared at the outsides. It wasn't until Ghâshash started to laugh that there wasn't silence except for roar of thunder fading.
"That's a warning if I ever saw one! Stop fighting, there'll be a proper fight soon enough, that's what HE said to Jherrnêl in the high place." She stirred the pot and peered at it, dipping her bowl in so that it sloshed to the brim and down her leathers before she drank it half down and smacked her lips.
"Good. Warm, too. Have a fill before the fighting! I'm not keen on losing enough limbs to be made a breeder or having my hide lashed for you rats biting it!"
"Fighting's fair and if the worst happens - at least they treat the breeders well," Ûrzûsh said. She looked ready for murder again.
"It's the splurters that get all the fun, not the breeders. Let him stick it in you all you want, much better to have a woman to take her mouth to you than to churn out runts year after year until you're so stretched they crawl out on their own." Jherrkêl had sat up and pushed the furs away, glaring back at Ûrzûsh. There were jeers and clapping.
Ogrêp looked from one to the other. "It's only the best that get made breeders and splurters. Get your limbs hacked off and make it through it means you're good material! And why not spread your legs for a man who's got a hundred tarks and golugs to his name? Gets you runny!" There were more jeers. "If he can throw you under even better. Half the fun and more's the tussling, and if you pick a good one there won't be runts like Tîzûsh here! That's all the fault there is with her, her breeder was too blind to grab the right one! Being a breeder isn't half bad, you're making it so. May be that you get to grab a boldog for splurting in you and he gets you one like that singer from the elf-forest."
"ENOUGH!" Ghâshash rose. She was the tallest and strongest and that and her cunning had made her leader. When she'd come over the mountains from the east, Ârnart the former chieftain had become fodde for the wargs, and since then the rest of the fifty in the cave had hopped when she'd ordered it and marched when she'd told them to. And more. Now she walked over to Jherrkêl's nook and ripped away part of her furs to drag over her body. Jherrkêl had her favour, but even she didn't protest, instead pressing closer. "Only ones that'll be made breeders if anything happens is me and her," said Ghâshash to the others. "Me because I'm chief. Her because she's got the same mind-crafts golugs do and HE needs to be heard when HE wants it and you're all dumb and deaf as rocks! Fodder for the ravens, and the roaches and rats that crawl on the battlefield! All the rest of you, quiet now. Sleep until there's time to fight some and we get the marching order. Sun's almost there."
* * *
The ground groaned and shook.
It wasn't rare that happened, but this time Jherrnêl jerked awake. Her sweat had wet the furs and there was the smell of smoke and rotten eggs, not from the cooking fire, on the wind rushing from the north with the noises like a warg's howl. She crooked her nails into Ghâshash's shoulder until she growled and rolled out the way, covering her face. It was near evening, Bolglât plain and the golug camps greyed in the fading day. Fires were kindled far out. All the others in the cave were still snoring.
Ghâshash snarled, wiping sleep-slime from her eyes. "What's?"
"It's the fire. Earthquake, that stinking smoke HE sent to the west-countries before."
"There's no smoke."
Jherrnêl ducked the swipe of claws aimed at her head. "There's smoke."
"Are you dreaming? Is that it? You wake me for a rattish golug dream?"
Jherrnêl grunted, scratching at the itch on her neck where the rake-marks had started scabbing. "If there isn't smoke now it's a true-dreaming, and that's the thing HE's wanted us to know! You don't say a word!"
Ghâshash's lips dragged back in snarl and she fisted her hand into Jherrnêl's dark braid. "If that's a trick – it's know that that's where the tarks live and the Red Golug is just across those hills – I'll spear you and gut you while you're still breathing!"
"You dare try, you won't be a leader long! I'm a rare one, harm me and the Spider'll have your miserable hide!"
Ghâshash kept staring at her, but it was then that the last parts of HIS orders rushed together in Jherrnêl's head. "Not a trick! HE'll roast the golugs on the plain tonight. You know fast it'll spread; we march at sundown and stay on high ground. The pine-fells to the east, there's where we're wanted before the fires come all the way from the north. Those that don't run fast enough will burn, those that do run fast enough will come through there. And that's where we'll wait." Jherrnêl's lips twisted. Bile crawled up her throat.
Ghâshash let forth a howl of delight. It woke the others, and they crawled to their feet.
"Pack up, you miserable creatures, we're marching!"
* * *
(The fire was coming, the fire. There was screaming as the dry tinder of the trees flamed and cones dropped in balls of flame, setting the carpet of the forest floor ablaze in a bewildering haze, smoke stinging and parching. Her mother was gone.)
Jherrnêl refused to look north and still found her head twisting to where the mountains were vomiting up fire in red and orange, sick yellow and green like phlegm. They ran like rivers and stank, foul eggs and hot metals, burnt hide and horn and grass. The fire began roaring while they were still marching, already in a larger company. They'd blown their horns and other bands of orcs had crawled from their shelters in the rocks. The flames still were far away still, but the wind roused the fire and harsh smoke made breaths into gasps. Jherrnêl could hear screaming far away, the beat of many boots on the cracking earth and flames searing their heels. The golugs were coming.
At last the march stopped; muttering from the mass of figures showed they were ready for the fight. They'd reached a spot on the plain where the hills ran barren rock into the grassland; strategy said as much. Simple to pick them off.
"If the golugs run, they'll run here!" Jherrnêl yelled. "Get ready!" The flames were rushing. Closer. Her throat was closing. The night wasn't far as freezing as it had been. Ghâshash ripped off her fur vest that she wore over her armour and wound it around her face against the smoke.
(Fire fire fire fire. A dark horse rearing and screaming and baring yellow teeth. Firelight shining red in its eyes. It came down hard before her. There were people fleeing. She screamed. No one turned for her, no one came back.)
Jherrnêl's feet were moving. She was running. Toward the battle. There were dark shapes coming among the flicker for the flames, the golugs, there were flames there was fire. Closer. She turned, wrapped fingers around the fletching of an arrow, nocked it, drew her bow, let loose.
The arrow caught fire in flight, blazed, burned out. Another. Somewhere in the flames somebody screamed, fell, ha; the flames licked over the golug. Other shapes were still running, closer and shining orange with the firelight on their terrible armour, skin studded with ember-burns, flames glaring from their sword-blades.
An order in the golug's ugly speech. The leader. "Form up, lower shields!"
They were upon the orcs now. A scream from somewhere in the panicked mass; a name --- Cenirë --- dim among roar of the flames, the golug it belonged to paused as though she'd heard but not understood, then parried with her shield and pitched Ûrzûsh down into the flames. Jherrnêl sucked in breaths that stung her throat and shot water into her eyes, smoke making her cough and slaver. Kill the leader. Scatter them.
The golug's - Cenirë's - face swam through the smoke before her, terror-white eyes mirroring the inferno, battle-hard from many years but now wide with a panic, a smell of fear and salt-sweat and soot upon the elf that made her gag.
(Like her mother before the flames had ripped her away. Too close. Searing.)
The filthy elf's lips were drawn into a snarl, Jherrnêl's lips dragged back in the same expression, lunged. Her armour wasn't a match, patched and pieced and broken. The golug woman's sword went through and thrust right into her innards, a stab of cold iron before the elf yanked it free and blood and filth gushed out.
Too much. Too much. The fire the smoke the sword the elf. She stumbled, fell hard onto the rocks. Black spots danced.
(The Rider stretching out his hand. "Come with me. I know a safe place," the voice in her head, the same the very same as HIS.
She reached out.)
And then the golug had gone past and the firestorm was on her.