Ransom at the Redhorn
"She ain't fit for heaven, but she can't stay in hell . . ."
The Farmer's Cursed Wife, Traditional
"Bring forth the prisoner!"
Snarg, son of Snograt, Goblin-king of Moria, sat upon his throne of skulls, resplendent in his ceremonial kilt of tanned pale Elvish skins. His fearsome visage never failed to strike terror into the hearts of those poor captive wretches who had the misfortune to fall into his clutches.
This one, who was currently being dragged in, struggling, between two of his guards, would be no different.
"We waylaid her party while they were traveling through the Redhorn Pass, Your Magnificence," said Durgluk, his second in command. "We saved this one for you."
She was a fine specimen of Elf-womanhood, hiding her face behind a curtain of silver-blonde hair while she fought to cover her slender body with the remnants of her ripped and tattered gown.
"What shall I do with you?" A stirring beneath the Elfskin kilt rendered the question moot.
Snarg saw a single violet eye widen through the silver fringe as his orc-hood freed itself, and he licked his black, ropey lips in anticipation.
"Oh, by Elbereth, I've heard tales of the Orcs, but this is disappointing. Is that all the bigger it is?" She threw her hair back over her shoulder and let out peals of laughter. "The warts are the largest thing on it. My husband is a healer, you know, renowned throughout all of Eriador. He could give you a nice cream for that."
"Silence, Elf-bitch," Snarg bellowed, hastily rearranging his kilt to disguise his flagging confidence.
"Bitch? Who are you calling bitch?"
"You," Snarg countered. "I'm calling you a bitch, and you're in no position to complain."
"Do you know who I am? I am the wife of Elrond Halfelven, Master of Rivendell. And I am the daughter of Artanis Galadriel, Lady of the Golden Wood, and you are in a world of trouble, you hairy, pustulent--"
"Take her away!" Snarg ordered. "Clean her up while I decide what to do with her."
"Can we . ..?" said Durgluk, his expression hopeful.
"Anything you want. Just teach her some manners. Oh, and Durgluk . . .?"
"Yes, Your Awfullness?" the orc replied as he and two other guards dragged the prisoner from the hall.
"Did you kill her entire escort?"
"Well . . . ."
"Go on, the truth."
"All but one or two. They know we have her, but it will be a long time before they come looking. Some pleasures are worth the risk."
"Indeed," said Snarg. In his mind, the pleasures were fading quickly, but this woman was the relative of Elrond of Imladris and the Lady of the Golden Wood. There still might be a way to turn this venture into a profit.
After pondering his dilemma for some time -- not the easiest task, since Snarg was an orc of action rather than one of reflection -- he rang for his second in command. "Durgluk, take a letter." He cleared his throat and then stopped short when he took his first good look at the underling who was creeping up to the throne, face to the floor. "Wait a moment -- who in Angband are you?"
"I'm Snurtgul, Yer Fearsomeness."
"What happened to Durgluk?"
"Well, about Durgluk, it's really very sad. 'E took you at yer word, you see, and tried to ravish the prisoner. She didn't take kindly to that and kicked 'im in the bits. I wouldn'ta believed a light Elven shoe could do such damage if I hadn't seen it with me own eyes."
"Hmm. Very sad for Durgluk. Where is he now?"
"We had t' put 'im down. It was the kindest thing, really, what with his bollocks all smashed up between 'is kidneys like that. On the bright side, 'e was delicious."
"Waste not, want not. Can you write?"
"I can, me Lord. Learnt it from an elvish scribe I caught once. 'E was delicious. My letters ain't so pretty, but most folks can read 'em."
"Good. Consider yourself my new chief lieutenant. Ready?"
The former sniveling orc-flunky turned orc-noble assembled his writing materials and sat cross-legged on the floor, pen poised above the parchment.
"To Elrond Peredhel, Master of Rivendell, greetings."
"Didja ever wonder why 'e calls 'imself 'Master' of Rivendell," Snurtgul interrupted. "It don't sound very grand to me, Yer Worshipfulness." He enunciated the last grandiose title carefully for emphasis.
"Buggered if I know," Snarg replied peevishly. He hated having his train of thought broken. "I never understood Elves. Or Half-elves. They're all crazy."
He paused and cleared his throat to continue. "We have your beloved wife, the Lady Celebrian. If you want to see her again all in one piece and unspoiled -- if you know what I mean and I think you do -- you will deliver to the west gate of Moria a chest containing ten thousand kulustar as soon as possible. Signed, Snarg the Great and Terrible, absolute lord of Moria and the Misty Mountains surrounding, et cetera, et cetera.
P.S. If kulustar are unavailable, an equal value in white gems or currency of Gondor will suffice."
"Oooh, nice touch about the gems, Yer Magnificence," Snurtgul enthused. "I like white gems. But tell me, how are you planning to deliver this? You won't find any of our boys willing to march into Rivendell, not with the likes of that Elf-lord Glorfindel on patrol. They'd get killed first thing."
"Hire an Easterling. Or use one of Saruman's Breelanders. They'll do anything for a copper. Now get to it!"
Snurtgul backed from the room, bowing and scraping. He would have been pulling his forelock too, had he not been as bald as an egg.
Snarg sat back on his throne and dreamed of the riches he was soon to possess. With ten thousand kulustar, he could buy concubines from Khand, dark, lovely wenches with rounded buttocks and big breasts, who knew their place and didn't laugh at a fellow's . . . warts.
He was still dreaming of his new wealth and fantasizing about plump compliant Khandish concubines four weeks later when Elrond's response arrived. Snarg broke the seal on the missive with gleeful anticipation.
"To His Infernal Majesty, King Snarg of Moria," the missive began. "While the continued separation from my most beloved and treasured helpmeet, the lady Celebrian Celeborniel, grieves me deeply, I regret to inform you that the burdens of running the Last Homely House in the Middle Lands have become unduly onerous as of late. Providing complimentary bed and board for the Free Peoples of Middle-earth is no easy task, I can assure you. There is the usual cost of incense by the bale whenever the Chieftains of the Dúnedain are in residence, and have you any idea how much a hobbit can eat? But I digress. In short, my current financial deficit renders me quite unable to meet your demands. Perhaps next season will be better. Until then I remain,
Your Humble and Devoted Servant, Elrond Peredhel, Master of Imladris"
Snarg let out a mumbled curse. "Cheap bastard."
"Well, ten thousand kulustar is a lot of money," his underling ventured.
"But it's his wife and -- wait, you're not Snurtgul! Who are you?"
"I'm Gashblakh, Your Putridness, and I suppose I'm your new chief lieutenant."
"Gah -- what happened to Snurtgul?"
"About Snurtgul, it's very sad, really. He told the prisoner that if she didn't quit her complaining about the food he'd shove a pintel up her backside to break her in right proper. Instead, she put her toe between his legs. Roont him then and there, what with his testy-cyools like to bulging out of his eye sockets."
"That wasn't very bright of him," Snarg said.
"No, it weren't," Gashblakh agreed. "But Snurtgul never was one of your great thinkers. On the bright side, he was delicious."
Never a one to be knocked off his bow-legged stride by adversity, Snarg examined his alternatives. "So what if her husband is a skinflint? He isn't the only family she's got. Take a letter, Gashblakh. Er, you can take a letter, right?"
The orc nodded in the affirmative.
"Good," Snarg continued. "To the Lady Galadriel, Mistress of the Golden Wood and her husband Celeborn. . ."
"I think you might want to put some commas--" Gashblakh piped in but fell silent at a glare from Snarg. "Sorry."
"As I was saying," Snarg continued, "We have your daughter. If you want her back, bring five thousand kulustar to the Dimrill Gate of Moria as soon as possible. She's not real happy here, if you catch my drift. Signed, Snarg the Merciless, Dread Lord of Moria and its surrounding environs."
"Short, but to the point," Gashblakh remarked as Snarg rolled up the parchment and used a large glob of snot to seal it. "Y'want me to have that Easterling deliver it to the Wood?"
Snarg shook his head. "This time, hire a Dunlending. More likely not to get shot on sight."
Lothlórien being much close than Rivendell, Snarg had his answer within ten days.
"What, you again?" he said when Gashblakh scuttled in bearing a missive in his clawed hand.
"Of course it's me, Yer Horridness. Why would y'be expectin' anyone else?"
"I don't know. I'm getting used to my guards trying to have their way with the Elf-woman and getting themselves killed."
"Why, I would never!" Gashblakh exclaimed. He sounded shocked at the idea.
"You have a good sense of self-preservation," Snarg said. "I like that in a fellow."
"Oh no," the underling went on. "I mean, I would never think of having my way with that she-Elf. How could I be unfaithful to my Urgren?" His face took on a dreamy look. "You should see her, my Urgren. Her hair is long and stringy, with hardly any lice to speak of. Her nose has a little crook in it -- just so -- and it's shaped like one o' them turnips. Her teeth have them fetching gaps that catch food, so her breath always smells like rotting meat. And her paps! Best pair in all of Moria. They hang down below her belly-button, they do, and her nipples point dead straight at the floor."
"She sounds irresistible. No wonder you aren't tempted by the prisoner."
"Oh, I'm tempted plenty," Gashblakh replied. "That's why I have Urgren guarding her so I don't have to go anywhere near."
"Good thinking," Snarg said. "Now give me Galadriel's letter. Arrggh, what nonsense is this?"
The rolled parchment was bound in a silver riband and some kind of vine with the leaves and blossoms still clinging. When Snarg undid the elaborate bow and unwound the vine, the parchment unfurled, almost to the floor, releasing a shower of golden petals. The smell of incense filled the room, setting the two orcs to coughing and gagging.
"She's cruel, she is, "Gashblakh muttered.
"My dearest King Snarg," the Goblin-king began to read, "children are one of the most gratifying blessings of an immortal life, and the time I spent with my cherished daughter during her extended visit to my realm shall be ever a precious memory to me until Ambar Metta. But in the course of Elven events, it becomes necessary to loosen the bond between parent and child, to let the little bird out of the nest to fly free, as it were . . ."
"Yer Terribleness . . .?"
Snarg's eyes unglazed and his head snapped up with a muffled snort at a poke from his lieutenant. "I'm sorry, Gashblakh, I must have dozed off."
"She does go on and on," Gashblakh concurred solicitously.
"Go on. You look. What's her answer?"
"I think it's no." Gashblakh scanned down the rest of the long parchment, his lips moving as he went. "Definitely no."
Snarg said a word so vile that even Gashblakh blushed.
"So, what's the next move, Yer Putridness?"
"I think it's time to throw a little scare into the prisoner. Remind her who's boss."
"Excellent idea! I'll wait right here."
"You do that."
Snarg did not mind going to see the prisoner alone. Despite his brave talk, he had no idea what to do next, and he would be just as happy not to have his second in command witness him having to beg the she-elf for advice.
He found Celebrian reclining on a bed of soft warg furs, a dish of pickled eyeballs at her side. As he entered the cell, she picked one up and popped it into her mouth. "These aren't so bad once you acquire the taste," she remarked to no one in particular. The only other person in the room was Gashblakh's wife, who had a pair of the most pendulous dugs Snarg had ever seen, just as her adoring husband had said.
"I need to speak to the prisoner in private," he barked.
"Gladly," Urgren muttered under her foul breath.
"Oh, Urgren," the she-elf piped in, "would you be a dear and fetch me another bowl of these delicious eyeballs? And while you're out, go to the east gate and pick me a fresh bunch of flowers. This room is beginning to smell stale. And take my slops bucket with you when you go."
Urgren mumbled something even more unintelligible and shot Snarg a look as sharp as daggers on her way out.
Snarg launched right into it. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."
"You've decided to take me up on that offer about the cream? Your situation hasn't improved by the look of things."
Snarg glared. "Your mother won't pay to have you back. Your husband neither. That doesn't leave me much choice as to what to do with you."
If she had understood the implied threat, the she-elf gave no sign. "Elrond was always a miserly sort. I really should have listened to Naneth when she told me never to marry a Peredhel, but I was young and in love, and would I listen? Who else was I to marry, I ask you? Cirdan was far too old for me, and that beard of his was off-putting. Gildor Inglorion is . . . Well, he doesn't seem to be a fan of the ladies, and Thranduil was married already--"
A blinding flash of inspiration went off in Snarg's dim brain. "Thranduil!" He turned on his heel.
"Wait . . ." The cries followed him. "I didn't give you permission to go! Where is Urgren with my eyeballs? I won't be treated like this . . ."
On his way out he ran into Urgren, returning with the empty slops bucket. The she-orc gave him a glance this time that verged on the murderous before trudging wearily back into the cell.
"Gashblahkh!" Snarg bellowed back in the throne room. "Take another letter."
"Who to this time, Yer Dreadfulness?"
"You'll see. This is brilliant." Snarg cleared his throat and began: "'To His most puissant Majesty, Thranduil Oropherion, King of Mirkwood . . .' Ah, no, cross that last word out. I hear he's cursed touchy about the 'Mirkwood' thing these days, 'Greenwood the Great, I have the business proposition of a lifetime for you. Imagine the prestige of rescuing the beloved spouse of a fellow Elven ruler and returning her to the loving arms of her husband! Or perhaps keeping her as the spirit moves you, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Kindly send two thousand kulustar to the east gate of Moria forthwith, and the Lady Celebrian can be yours to dispose of at your pleasure. I realize that kulustar may be difficult to obtain in your neck of the woods; if so, white gems, furs, hardwood and nuts -- whatever passes for legal tender in your realm -- will do. I eagerly await your response. Signed, Snarg, King of Moria and fellow fancier of fine womanflesh.'"
"Oooh, that's nice!" Gashblakh enthused. "You may turn a profit out of that she-devil yet. Shall I hire an Easterling for the delivery?"
"No, find one of our boys -- a short one -- put him in a Dwarf-cloak, and send him in. Security is lax in Mirkwood these days."
Because of the distance involved, the wait was longer, but in two fortnights Snarg had his reply when two orcs, a tall one and a short one, entered his throne room.
"Where's Gashblakh?" Snarg demanded.
"The bitch got him," the taller one replied.
"I knew it! I knew he couldn't keep his paws off that she-elf!"
"No, boss, it wasn't the elf-bitch that did for him, it was his own wife. Urgren got tired of Gashblakh lording it over everyone for being second in command while the prisoner ran 'er ragged and treated her like a general dogsbody, so she put toadstools in his soup. Never seen a fellow die so hard."
"Was he delicious?"
"No, boss. Poison spoils the meat. But Urgren was mighty tasty."
"That's good, I suppose." Snarg paused. He had grown almost fond of Gashblakh. "How did the mission to Mirkwood go?"
"Snurt'll have to explain that. Tell the King, Snurt," he said, pushing the smaller orc to the fore.
"Well, Yer Awfullness, when I finally got to the Elvenking's halls and knocked on that great stone gate of 'is, someone from inside yells out, 'Go away, there's no one home,' and I yells back, 'There's someone home, yer in there talkin' to me, ain't ya? Open up so's I can deliver this letter!' They go all quiet for a bit and then yell back, 'We're busy. We're washing our hair tonight.' That like to throw me for a loop, Yer Crapulousness, but I persisted. You'd a been proud o' me. So I yells, 'I got this letter for King Thranduil, and I can't go back to Moria without he sees it.' 'You're an orc?' they says. 'Why didn't you say so? We thought you were a dwarf!' So the gate slides open a crack and out comes a hand wot snatches my letter and the gate slams shut again. Not ten minutes later, the gate opens and out comes the same hand to give me this."
Snurt knelt and thrust out a rolled parchment. Snarg recognized his original missive, opened, re-rolled and newly sealed with bright green wax and an oak leaf imprint. Next to the name 'Thranduil Oropherion' were the words, 'Moved, left no forwarding address.'
"Guess we missed 'im," said Snurt, with an ingratiating grin.
"You idiot -- this is King Thranduil's personal seal! That ring never leaves his hand. Take him away," Snarg bellowed, "and set him to guarding the she-elf." The hapless Snurt was dragged off protesting, where in due course he met the fate of all Celebrian's gaolers. He was delicious, albeit a small meal.
"That does not surprise me in the least," Celebrian said the next time Snarg saw her to report his lack of success with the Elvenking. "Nana always said Thranduil was a Sindarin rustic who'd end up living in a cave, forgetting and forgotten. For some reason, Ada always looked uncomfortable whenever she got to talking like that. I never really understood why." She paused to cross her legs, giving Snarg a disquieting flash of lavender. "What else can one expect from a parvenu like Thranduil? He calls himself a king, but he's not even royal, you know, just the son of one of King Thingol's flunkies who got some big ideas and--"
"Here's the thing," Snarg put in quickly, taking advantage of her need to draw breath, "I'm quickly running out of things to do with you so --"
"You will address me as Your Highness," she snapped. "My mother is the Princess Artanis Alatariel, granddaughter of the Kings of both the Noldor and the Teleri, and great-niece of the High King Ingwe himself. I have truly royal blood in my veins, unlike some I could mention."
"As I was about to say, Your Highness, I have no more use for you."
She blinked. "No use?" Snarg could have sworn she looked disappointed
"None. I'd sooner swive a warg, and you're too stringy to make good eating. I'll have my men take you to the west gate and turn you loose."
"And I'm to do what? Walk back to Rivendell alone, with the winter coming on? Oh no, I simply cannot travel without my palfrey and my retinue."
"We ate your horse. And most of your retinue, most likely. You'll go to the west gate and out the door whether you like it or not. From there, you're on your own."
"Is that so?" She eyed his crotch meaningfully and circled her foot with its very pointed toe.
"I'll see what I can do about an escort for you," Snarg said and turned to leave.
"On your way out, summon that lazy wench -- I forget what her name is -- and tell her my pillow needs fluffing and this vase of flowers has gone wilted. How I miss Urgren! Always so efficient. You should really see to your staff. Elrond would never allow such laxity at Imladris --"
"Shut your pie-hole . . . Your Highness," he snarled. Her angry shrieks echoed in his ears all the way down the tunnel.
Back in the throne room, Snarg yelled, "Take a letter, whatever your name is."
"Sure thing, Boss. And my name is --"
"I don't care what your name is. You won't last long enough for it to be worth my while learning it. Ready?"
The tall orc nodded and Snarg began: "Elrond, I find myself in a magnanimous mood. You can come and take your wife for free. She's as good as new, you have my word of honor for it. Just get her out of here. Signed Snarg."
His assistant coughed. "Long time coming, boss. I'll hire another Easterling."
"Don't waste the money," Snarg grumbled. "All of Middle-earth knows we're in negotiations now. Send another of our boys."
Elrond's response, brought in by a trembling orc-messenger who was clearly terrified of becoming Celebrian's next gaoler, was just as terse, albeit more eloquent: Forgive me, Snarg, but my duties at the Last Homely House preclude my absence at this time. My sons are occupied with their deeds of errantry and likewise have no gap in their busy schedules for a journey down to Moria. If I know my dear Celebrian, she will accept no less than a royal escort, and this year is not looking good. Perhaps next year or the one after that? Please give my best regards to my wife, and I will be in touch. Yours, Elrond.
Snarg slammed his fist down upon his throne, sending one of the skulls tumbling into the corner. He was on the verge of ordering the messenger to report to the Elf-bitch's cell, when in came his tall second in command, leading a rag-tag delegation of orc-guards. "We've something to tell you, boss."
Snarg waved a hand weakly to allow the fellow to speak. How much worse could the day get?
The tall orc pulled out a parchment and cleared his throat. "We, the representatives of the Brotherhood of Tunnel Maggots Moria Local #6, hereby protest the conditions under which we have lately been forced to work. To wit, one Elvish prisoner who has caused us great emotional distress and increased mortality among the workers."
"Oh come now," Snarg interrupted. "At least your rations have been excellent."
"Yes, boss, delicious -- but it's us, and our numbers are growing thin." He fell back to reading from the prepared statement. "Our bollocks are not safe, we're running critically low on pickled eyeballs, and our wives refuse to sleep with us. As a result, we declare ourselves on strike. There will be no ravishing and disemboweling, no torturing of small animals, no work of any kind until that she-balrog is removed from these premises."
Snarg felt himself deflate. "That's your last word?"
"It is. Please, boss, send her back before she kills us all."
Idly, Snarg wondered if morale would be destroyed forever if his minions saw a grown orc cry. But now he knew what he must do.
Elrond Peredhel stood on his balcony, watching as the train of his departing wife, including servants, nobles, and twenty-six pack horses carrying her ball gowns and set of matched luggage, wound its way down toward the Bruinen. He would not be accompanying them. Thank the Rodyn for Figwit, who was used to shepherding wayward noble Elf-ladies and never lost an opportunity to journey to the Havens.
The past months had been hellish, with Celebrian loudly expressing her indignation over her shoddy treatment by orcs and family alike. Elrond was relieved to have an end to the constant complaints and to her odd new obsession with pickled eyeballs and ice cream. He really should have listened to his cousin Gil-galad and remained a confirmed bachelor.
He would still miss her, but there were other ways to warm a bed. And his new astrolabe, purchased with the fifteen thousand kulustar bribe Snarg of Moria paid to entice him to come down and collect his wife, would certainly keep him occupied for many nights to come. Word had it that the Goblin-king had been forced to sell several of his favorite concubines in order to raise the money and would be reduced to swiving wargs, which pleased Elrond no end.
Of course there was one last problem with his wife's flounce off to Valinor. Once the Valar had met Celebrian and gotten to know her, Elrond suspected he would not be high on their list of favorites when the time came to sail himself. But with the One Ring lost, perhaps never to be found, he could always plead the need to remain and protect the Middle Lands until the day Sauron was indisputably defeated. With any luck, that would be forever.