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Orcs are angry now two days. Two days since orcs found village burned, no men left. Nothing to kill, nothing to eat, no new snagas to work. Many rabbits, many deer, but orcs want more. Want man-flesh. No man-flesh to be had. Orcs are angry.

He is alone now, carrying packs. Yesterday, other snaga tried to escape. Today, he is alone. Packs are heavy. No wargs. It is good, no wargs. If wargs, perhaps orcs would eat warg. Perhaps they would eat him. Better carry packs alone. Safer.

When day comes, he sits by tree, close in to orcs. Keeps head down. Makes self small.

Not small enough.

What about that one, says One-Eye. Maybe it’ll run too.

It won’t run, says Big Orc. It knows what’ll happen if it tries.

Yes, he knows. Saw what happened to other snaga. He knows.

No harm in being sure, One-Eye says. One-Eye finds rope, ties it to neck-chain. Ties other end to tree branch. Pulls tight. Collar tight against neck. He stands on toes to breathe.

Orcs laugh. Won’t run now, says Six-Finger.

Big Orc comes. Leans down. Breathes into his face. He stands on toes. Tries to breathe. Tries not to breathe.

It won’t run anyway, Big Orc says. I’ve had it for years. It’s never tried. I told you.

One-Eye is new. Big Orc doesn’t like. He keeps eyes down, hopes Big Orc hates One-Eye more than he wants to laugh.

Yeah, you told me, says One-Eye. I just want to see how strong it is. Very strong, you told me.

Khozd shrakhun, Big Orc says. Not angry now. Proud. Strongest of the whole filthy lot.

Won’t have any trouble, then, One-Eye says. Maybe it’ll get taller.

Orcs laugh. Big Orc leaves him be. Time for sleep.

He stands on toes. Does not sleep.

----

No food, next night. Orcs move fast. No food, no water. Head is blurring. Move, move, move. One step, two steps. Must not fall behind.

Day comes. One-Eye quarrels with Blacktooth. Orcs are pleased. Enjoy fight. Blacktooth rips off One-Eye’s ear.

Call him One-Ear now, Big Orc says. Orcs laugh.

No-one looks at him. Small enough today.

----

Orc-call comes when sun is still high in sky.

Orc-call is far away. Distance doesn’t matter: orcs wake. He wakes, too. Always wakes for orc-call.

Big Orc jumps up. Calls back. Call is loud. Birds fly away.

Run, Big Orc says. Prey.

Orcs run.

----

Running is not easy. Feet still hurt from standing on toes all night. Orcs are tall, hungry, angry. Run fast. He follows, carries packs. Falls behind.

Orcs are easy to follow. Grass is trampled, smells of rot. Orc-call ahead. He runs. He is too slow. Orcs will be angry.

He hopes orcs catch prey. Catch prey, stop running. Busy with prey. When orcs are finished, less angry, less hungry. He hopes they catch prey.

----

Finds orcs in cave. Sun is still up. Orcs have not found prey. Still searching.

Stuff’s here, says Six-Finger.

One-Eye smiles. Hungry smile. Dangerous. Slow, your snaga, he says.

Big Orc is angry. Kicks him in bad knee. He falls down. Eyes water.

Faster next time, Big Orc says. Understand?

He nods. Stays down. Big Orc stamps on knee. He grunts. Loud enough that Big Orc knows he hurts. Quiet enough that Big Orc won’t want more.

Stupid snaga, Big Orc says. Grabs chin. Spits in face. He keeps eyes on ground.

I can smell em, Blacktooth says. I’m sure of it. Come on.

Big Orc drops chin. Kicks him under jaw. He bites through tongue. Keeps mouth shut. Swallows blood. Can’t let orcs smell blood.

Big Orc turns to Blacktooth. Let’s go, he says.

----

Orcs search all night. Sure prey is still nearby. He works until no more work. Sits in corner. Far into cave. One-Eye thinks he’ll run. Needs to show he won’t run.

One-Eye wants to be big orc. He hopes Big Orc kills One-Eye. Dark outside. Could kill while searching. Thing is done, no help. Orcs happy, plenty of food. If he was Big Orc, would kill One-Eye.

Big Orc doesn’t come back. Morning comes: no Big Orc. No One-Eye. No Blacktooth. Six-Finger, Stinker, other orcs sleep. Head is thick, dizzy -- no food, no sleep.

He sleeps.

----

He wakes up. Orcs are fighting. Sword fight. Still daylight. Big Orc, he thinks. Big Orc fighting One-Eye.

He is wrong. Big Orc is not here. Three orcs dead on ground. Six-Finger fights yellow-haired man. Man is short. Prey, he understands. Prey is here. Prey is fighting.

Stinker roars, jumps up from sleep. Lunges forward, then falls back. Someone else now. Man-child. Man-child with little sword, slashing at Stinker. Shrieking.

Stinker picks up man-child. Throws child against cave wall. Child falls, doesn’t move.

Prey is fighting. Three orcs dead. Yellow-Hair killed three orcs. May kill two more. May kill all orcs.

Big Orc will come back. See orcs are dead. Prey gone.

Big Orc will be angry.

Child moves. Groans.

Big Orc will be angry. Yellow-Hair is too strong. But child is weak. He can fight child. Show Big Orc. Big Orc not as angry.

Child sits up. Picks up sword.

He attacks.

----

Child is small, thin. Bird-boned. He hits child in face. Hits again. Maybe he can kill child. Hits again.

Child lifts hands. Pushes. Head swims. Stomach shifts. He is falling. Keeps hitting. Head hurts. Eyes are blurry. Tries to push man-child off. Scratches child’s cheek. Child cuts him with sword. Cuts arm. Blood. He has no sword. Kicks child, crawls away. Tries to get up. Head spins.

Yellow-Hair shouts. Runs forward. Two swords. He steps back. Stumbles. Six-Finger is dead. Stinker is dead. Big Orc has not come back. Yellow-Hair has swords. Killed five orcs. Yellow-Hair will kill him.

Then, child. Child steps forward. Stands between him and Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair stops. Speaks. Man-language. Yellow-Hair is angry.

Child speaks back. Voice is high, fluting. Like bird. Man-language is thin. Soft. Child speaks, raises hands. Stands between him and Yellow-Hair.

Why?

Yellow-Hair still angry. Pushes child aside. Looks at child. Pushes. Looks. Yellow-Hair looks at child. Doesn’t look at him. Doesn’t look.

He runs. Jumps. Lands on Yellow-Hair. Knocks him down. Tries to get up, run. Cave mouth is open. Run, find Big Orc.

Yellow-Hair too strong. Holds him down. Rolls him over. Grabs hair. Yellow-Hair will kill him.

Better, maybe. Yellow-Hair killed orcs fast. Big Orc will not kill fast. Better. Maybe.

He waits. But Yellow-Hair stops. Stares at him. Sword is down. Other sword on floor. Stares and stares.

He doesn’t understand. Doesn’t need to understand. Other sword is on floor. Yellow-Hair stares. Stupid, maybe. Doesn’t matter. He has no sword. But he has teeth.

He bites Yellow-Hair. Kicks. Crawls. Yellow-Hair lets him go. He grabs for sword. Child snatches sword, shouts in bird-language. No matter. Cave mouth is empty. He can run.

He runs.

Doesn’t reach cave mouth. Leg is bad, knee hurts. Yellow-Hair is faster. Knocks him down. Grips him, not tight enough. He slips away. Finds knife by Six-Finger. Yellow-Hair between him and cave mouth. Yellow-Hair is strong, but bad fighter. Killed five orcs, but cannot kill him. Looks away often. Grip is weak. Bad fighter.

He has knife. Maybe he can kill Yellow-Hair.

Child speaks. Yellow-Hair looks away. He lunges. Swings knife. Almost kills Yellow-Hair. Could have killed. Turns to swing again.

Yellow-Hair moves fast. In front of him, then behind. Yellow-Hair’s arm around his neck. Thick, solid. Eyes go dark.

At least it is fast, he thinks. Closes eyes. At least it is fast.

----

He is not dead.

Someone is talking. Bird-language. Not orc.

Who is talking?

He opens eyes.

Yellow-Hair. Leaning over him. Talking.

He is not dead. Why?

Yellow-Hair smiles. Grabs him on shoulder. Grip is weak. Doesn’t hurt. Yellow-Hair killed five orcs. Why is grip weak?

Yellow-Hair stands up. Holds out hand. Speaks, bird-language. Words mean nothing. Float away. Thin, like clouds. Maybe Yellow-Hair is thin, too. Insubstantial. Weak grip, weak mind.

He takes hand.

Yellow-Hair turns to look at child. Always looks at child. Same mistake, over and over. Weak mind.

He trips Yellow-Hair. Runs. Cave mouth is empty. No-one to stop him. Run, find Big Orc. Show him prey. Maybe punishment is not too bad. Big Orc easily catch prey. Yellow-Hair is weak-minded. Child is child.

Shouts behind him. He runs. Trees are close.

Knee hurts. Buckles. He stumbles, almost falls. Head spins. Blurs.

Trees are close. Close. Steps away. One. Two.

Heavy thing hits his back. He falls, weight on top. Yellow-Hair. He fights. Yellow-Hair is stronger, heavier. Grip not weak now. Yellow-Hair speaks. Not bird-language. Deep, solid. He does not understand.

They fall. Downhill, down, down. Rolling over and over. Head spins. Stomach lurches. He fights. Does not fight well. Yellow-Hair wins.

Now, he thinks. Now Yellow-Hair will kill. Yellow-Hair sits on chest, holds down arms. Now he will kill.

But Yellow-Hair does not kill. Does not want to kill. Now he understands. Yellow-Hair wants to steal him.

He fights. Struggles. Cannot let Yellow-Hair steal him. Big Orc will punish. Big Orc has no use for easily stolen snaga.

He fights, but Yellow-Hair’s grip is strong. Strong, but still does not hurt. Yellow-Hair is strong, but weak. Stupid. Big Orc will kill Yellow-Hair.

Big Orc will punish him for letting Yellow-Hair steal him. He has no bruises, only sword cut. Big Orc will punish.

He spits in Yellow-Hair’s face. Maybe Big Orc is watching. Maybe Yellow-Hair will get angry. Leave bruises.

Yellow-Hair does not leave bruises. Looks at child, but does not loosen grip. Pulls him to his feet. Pulls wrists behind back.

Wrists behind back. He is stolen snaga. Stolen snaga and no bruises.

Big Orc will punish.

----

They walk. Walk all day. Yellow-Hair holds his arm. Never lets go. Wrists tied behind back. He is stolen snaga.

He keeps head down. Hair in face. Watches.

Yellow-Hair is short. Broad. Not quite man. Grip is strong, but weak. Does not hurt. Yellow-Hair looks at him often. Sometimes speaks. He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t understand bird-language.

Child is not child. He watches. Looks close. Child has man-face. Not child. Tiny man. Bare feet. Follows behind. He does not understand.

They walk all day. Head is blurry. Stomach hurts. Four days now, no food. Two days no drink. Thoughts are strange. Thick. Shadows in corners of eyes.

Sun is high, then low. He does not remember where they walked. How will he find his way back? How will he find Big Orc?

Big Orc will find him. Big Orc always finds prey.

River. There is river. No river, then river. He stops. Shadows dance on water. Light hurts his eyes. Head is spinning.

Someone is talking. Not-child. Not-child is talking. He doesn’t understand. Head is light, floating away. River steals his breath. Heart is frozen.

Yellow-Hair wants him to move. He stays still. Maybe Yellow-Hair will punish him now. Give him bruises. Better bruises than drown.

Yellow-Hair does not give him bruises. Yellow-Hair pushes him. He is frozen: heart, lungs, legs. He falls. Water in eyes, mouth, throat. Choking. Hand in his hair. He fights. Yellow-Hair was waiting. Waiting for river. Waiting to drown him.

He is drowning. Drowning, drowning. No more thoughts. Mind is frozen. Only drowning.

Hands on arms. Pull him up. Set him on his feet.

Yellow-Hair tried to drown him. Now pull him up. He turns. Yellow-Hair is frightened. Frightened.

He doesn’t understand.

Big Orc will kill you, he says. You are too weak. You cannot win. He will find you.

Let me go, he says. I’ll tell him wrong. I’ll tell him you drowned in river. Let me go.

Yellow-Hair and Not-Child stare. Frightened. They don’t understand him.

But no-one is holding him.

He sees it in their eyes. They see it in his. No-one is holding him. He is too slow: Yellow-Hair lunges, grabs arm. Strong grip now, almost hurts.

He looks down. He is stolen snaga.

----

Sun goes down. Yellow-Hair stops. Men travel at day. Sleep at night. He knows this. Men are strange.

Yellow-Hair and Not-Child argue. Yellow-Hair holds his arm. Not-Child points at him. What are they saying? Bird-language. Thin, even for angry words. They are arguing about him. Whether to kill him. When to kill him. Maybe.

Yellow-Hair makes him sit by tree. Ties his wrists to trunk. He cannot reach knots. Cannot move from tree. This, he understands. Tied to tree. At least he is sitting down.

Yellow-Hair is angry. Angry when he ties knots. Why is Yellow-Hair angry?

He has done something, made Yellow-Hair angry. What has he done? He wishes he knew bird-language. Doesn’t know what they argue about. Doesn’t know what he has done. How can he know what he should not do?

He keeps eyes down. Yellow-Hair stares at him. He waits. But -- nothing. Yellow-Hair does not kick him. Does not hit. Does nothing.

Then something. Yellow-Hair takes off coat. He braces himself. Yellow-Hair likes him to wait. Yellow-Hair knows longer wait is worse than shorter. Now he knows this. He knows one more thing. He braces himself.

Yellow-Hair leans forward and lays coat over him. Wraps it close. Sits back.

Nothing else.

He keeps eyes down. Frowns. Coat is not punishment. Coat is warm. Soft. He is wet, cold. Coat is warm. He has never worn coat before. Coat is so warm.

He does not understand.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Watches him. What should he do? He can do nothing. Tied to tree. Cannot give back coat. Cannot -- cannot wash coat, cannot mend coat. Why coat? Why does Yellow-Hair watch? What should he do?

He keeps eyes down. Not-Child speaks. Yellow-Hair only watches. Waiting is worse. Longer wait is worse than shorter. Why does Yellow-Hair wait?

And then, Yellow-Hair gets up. Draws sword. His heart lurches. Now? Now it is time? He looks up. Knows he should not look up. Cannot help himself. Head is light, floating. Now it is time?

Not-Child touches him. Touch is weak. Does not hurt. Not-Child is weak. Yellow-Hair is strong, but weak. Not-Child is only weak.

Touch is warm.

Yellow-Hair lays sword on ground. Walks away. He stares. Should not look. Should keep eyes on ground. But Yellow-Hair walks away.

He sits. Hands are tied. Warm coat. Warm touch. Sword is on ground. He does not understand.

Not-Child watches Yellow-Hair. Looks at sword. Speaks. He looks at Not-Child. Not-Child is tiny man. Bare feet. High voice. Weak. What is Not-Child?

Snaga. Not-Child is snaga.

Yes. No collar, no chains. But bare feet. Too weak to fight. Yes, Not-Child is snaga, little snaga. He does not know why Yellow-Hair wants weak snaga. He does not know anything about what Yellow-Hair wants.

Little snaga sees him looking. Pulls hand away. Cold now, where hand was warm. Little Snaga moves away.

He watches. Little Snaga is weak. Leaves sword on grass. Does not hold. Little Snaga is foolish. If hands were not tied, he could take sword. Kill Little Snaga. Run, find Big Orc.

Hands are tied. He can do nothing.

Little Snaga stands up. Stares up at sky. Dark now. Stars, moon. Stars are cold, bright. Always same stars. Many stars here. Almost as many as in desert. What is it like, among stars?

Little Snaga speaks. Stares at stars. Talks in bird-language. Who is he talking to? Maybe talking to stars. Are stars listening? Do stars speak bird-language?

No. Bird-language is too thin for stars. Star-language is cold and bright. He hears it sometimes, when he is sleeping.

He watches Little Snaga. Head is still floating. Stars shine and spin. Little Snaga speaks on. Talking to stars.

Then Little Snaga turns. Walks to him. Crouches down. Speaks. He watches. Tries to understand what Little Snaga wants. But bird-language. He does not understand.

Little Snaga speaks again. Slow, short words. Still he does not understand. Little Snaga points at him, wants something. What does he want?

I don’t understand, he says. Hard to speak. Tongue is dry, throat is dry. He looks at ground. He understands nothing at all.

Little Snaga does not speak to him again.

----

Little Snaga talks to stars. Talks and talks. He has never heard snaga talk so much. Snaga should be silent. Only make noise when master wants to hear it. But Yellow-Hair is not here. Maybe Little Snaga talks now so that he can be silent when Yellow-Hair comes back.

What is he saying to stars? Bird-language goes on and on. Like singing. He watches. Throat is dry. Stomach cramps. Head begins to drift. Eyes blur. Bird sings, on and on.

Then, Yellow-Hair is back. He did not see Yellow-Hair come. Yellow-Hair is not there, then he is there. It is not good. He opens eyes wider. Should see more. Pay more attention.

Little Snaga is still talking. He wants to warn Little Snaga. Be silent, master is here. But Little Snaga will not understand him. He stays silent, looks at ground.

Yellow-Hair does not punish Little Snaga. Does not seem to care that Little Snaga is not silent.

Yellow-Hair kneels in front of him. Yellow-Hair has bowl. Bowl is filled with water. Yellow-Hair lifts bowl, presses to his lips. Speaks.

Yes. This game he knows. This game he understands.

He keeps eyes on ground. This game he knows. He plays well. Big Orc always pleased. Other snagas always lose game, always drink first. But he is only player here. How long should he play? He knows Big Orc, knows how long to play before losing. He does not know Yellow-Hair.

Maybe Little Snaga will play game. He can beat Little Snaga. Little Snaga is weak.

Yellow-Hair puts down bowl. Reaches for his neck. He is ready. But no pain. Yellow-Hair holds his chin. Stares at his face. He wishes hair was covering face. Looks at ground.

Yellow-Hair speaks. What does he want? Picks up bowl. Presses it to lips. Speaks. Same thing, over and over.

Water is cold on lips. Throat is dry. Tongue is dry. Eyes are dry.

Big Orc always pleased. Khozd shrakhun is strong, he says. Can play the longest. Always beats other snagas.

Water is cold on lips. He keeps mouth closed. Clasps hands behind back. Squeezes until bones shift. Does not drink.

Yellow-Hair sits back. Takes bowl away. Lips are still wet. He could lick lips. Will Yellow-Hair see?

Yellow-Hair is talking to Little Snaga. They are not looking at him. He could -- he could--

Little Snaga looks at him. Picks up bowl. Yellow-Hair is staring now. He cannot lick lips. Stomach rolls, cramps. Lips are wet.

Little Snaga presses bowl to his lips. He stares at bowl. This is new game. He does not understand.

Little Snaga speaks. He looks at Little Snaga, then at Yellow-Hair. He should not look. Must look. He does not understand bird-language. Maybe if he looks, he might understand. How new game works. What Yellow-Hair wants.

Looking does not help. He looks back at ground.

Little Snaga speaks again. He does not understand. Yellow-Hair gets up. Goes away. Now it is only Little Snaga. Little Snaga holds bowl to lips. Speaks.

He does not know new game. Has never played. Water is cool against lips. Heart beats loud in head. Water is cool. Water is. Water.

Little Snaga tips bowl. Water against skin.

Water.

He opens mouth. He is not strong. Opens mouth. Water on tongue. Water is cold, clear. No grit, no mud. Sweet. Sweetest water. He tries to stop. Cannot stop. Water. Cannot open mouth wide enough. Water.

Water feels like cool touch, sliding down through body. Mouth, throat, lungs, heart, stomach. Water flows through veins, arms, legs, mind. Maybe he has lost game. Maybe tomorrow drown.

Water is worth it.

And then: bowl is empty. No more water. Little Snaga lays bowl down. He stares at it. Drops collect. Three drops still in bowl. Fingers twitch. If hands not tied, he could take bowl. Drink three drops.

Hands are tied. Fingers twitch. Bowl is empty.

Little Snaga speaks. Calls out. Yellow-Hair comes back. What now? Was he wrong? Did he play game wrong? Why did Little Snaga call for Yellow-Hair?

Yellow-Hair takes bowl. Leaves.

He watches Little Snaga. What is game? He wishes he could speak bird-language, ask Little Snaga. Snagas should not speak to each other. Orcs do not like. But Little Snaga speaks to him. Little Snaga speaks, Yellow-Hair does not punish. Can he speak to Little Snaga?

No. Cannot speak. Does not speak bird-language.

Little Snaga sees him watching. Speaks to him. He does not speak back. Does not speak bird-language. If he spoke, he could talk to Little Snaga. Ask him about game. About coat. He does not speak.

Yellow-Hair comes back. He sees this time. Is ready. Eyes not so blurry now. Looks at ground.

And then, Yellow-Hair is gone, and bowl is full again. He stares. Bowl is full. What is game? Game is impossible to understand.

Little Snaga raises bowl. He leans forward, pulls against rope. Tries not to. Should wait. But water. But water, water in bowl, cold and clear. He leans forward.

Water tastes even better now. He drinks, deep and long. Water is better, best. Water is best.

Little Snaga pulls on chain. No. He is wrong. Drinks too much, too fast. Greedy snaga.

He stops. Closes mouth. Bowl still half full. He could open mouth, finish water.

But no. Cannot be greedy. Already too greedy. Maybe Little Snaga will not give water again. Maybe Little Snaga will be angry.

Little Snaga takes bowl away. Puts down. Still half full. Speaks. Bird-language is thin, hard to hear when angry. But Little Snaga does not sound angry.

He tries to see. See Little Snaga’s face. Face does not look angry. Little Snaga hits him. Hit has no force. Open palm. Weak. Why hit, no force? Feels only warm. Is it punishment? It does not feel like punishment.

Little Snaga gets up, goes away. Bowl is still on ground. Half full. Fingers twitch.

Hands are tied. Cannot reach.

----

He will remember water. He thinks about it. Sits by tree, watches Yellow-Hair and Little Snaga. Thinks about water. Remembers how it felt. Cold and clear on tongue. Spreading through body. Remember this, he tell himself. Everything. How it felt. How it tasted. Keep in head, keep in mind. Not forget.

Maybe tomorrow drown. Water was worth it.

----

Little Snaga comes back. Takes bowl. Empties water. He watches. Keeps head down. Watches water drain away. Little Snaga goes back to Yellow-Hair. Comes back again. Bowl is full.

Bowl is full of meat.

He stares at bowl. Meat smell drifts. Stomach cramps. Mouth is full of saliva. He swallows. Swallows again.

Little Snaga picks up piece of meat. Holds it up. Speaks. Bird-language is thin, high. It is question? Maybe. He stares at meat. Looks at Little Snaga. Nothing on face to help him understand. He nods. Does not know question. Only nods. Hopes it is right.

Little Snaga leans forward, holds out meat. Speaks. He wants to snap. Use teeth. Snatch meat from Little Snaga’s hand.

No. Already too greedy, lost water. Must not also lose meat. Must not make Little Snaga angry.

He opens mouth. Little Snaga puts meat on tongue. He closes mouth. Chews.

Meat is hot. Tender. No bones. Brown, not black. Juices run down throat. He is shaking. Teeth clack together. Hard to chew.

He keeps meat in mouth as long as he can. Wants to taste it. But cannot keep long. Stomach cramps when juices hit it. Needs to swallow meat.

He swallows.

Little Snaga speaks. Holds out more meat. More. Holds out more.

He opens mouth.

----

Little Snaga gives him all meat in bowl. All meat. Stomach is full, warm. He cannot remember last time stomach was full. Water, food. Whole body is warm under coat. Little Snaga speaks to him. Again and again. He wants to speak back. Wants to ask. What can he do? What can he give?

He wants to warn Little Snaga. Big Orc is coming. Big Orc always finds prey. Big Orc will not kill fast.

Stomach is full, warm. Little Snaga speaks, is not angry. He wants to warn Little Snaga. But no bird-language. No words. Big Orc is coming.

He does not want Little Snaga to die.

Chapter Text

Big Orc does not come in night.

He does not sleep. Night is not for sleeping. Night is for moving, working. Day is for sleeping. Still, he is tired. Has not slept long for days. But he does not sleep. Orcs move at night. Big Orc is coming. He should be ready.

Big Orc does not come.

Little Snaga, Yellow-Hair do not sleep. Little Snaga lies down. Yellow-Hair sits up. They do not sleep. Sometimes talk. Mostly silent. Not sleeping.

Why stay here, if not sleep? Why not move? It is not safe to stay here. Orcs move at night. Yellow-Hair is foolish. Does not understand. Big Orc will come. Yellow-Hair will die. Little Snaga will die.

Will Big Orc kill him? Maybe. He is Big Orc’s snaga now many years. Big Orc proud. Khozd shrakhun strongest snaga, he says. See? Arm does not break. See? Does not cry out. Good sport. Here, you try.

Big Orc proud. But he is stolen snaga now. Stolen snaga is not strong. Big Orc not proud of stolen snaga. Will Big Orc kill him? Maybe. Will Big Orc punish him?

Yes. Big Orc will punish him.

He tries knots. Pulls at rope. Quiet. Head down. Knots are too tight. He cannot escape.

Maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow they will move again. Will untie him from tree. Maybe then. He can run, find Big Orc. Show him prey. Maybe punishment is less.

Maybe not show Big Orc prey. Maybe say prey is dead. Drowned in river. Little Snaga gave him water, gave him food. He remembers water, cool on tongue. He closes eyes, remembers water. Stomach is still warm.

If he shows Big Orc prey, punishment will be less. If he says prey drowned -- what then? Will punishment be less? Will Big Orc think he only came back because new master drowned? What if Big Orc finds prey, knows he lied?

Stomach is still warm. He does not know what to do.

Little Snaga, Yellow-Hair fall asleep. Little Snaga wakes up with sun. Comes to tree. He watches. No bowl. No water.

Little Snaga speaks. Sits down. More words. He does not understand bird-language. Cannot ask Little Snaga. Cannot warn him. How can he warn Little Snaga?

He tries. Listens hard to words. Bird-language is wispy. Sounds all run together. He tries to pick them out. What order do they go in? He tries to find hard sounds. Tries to repeat what Little Snaga said. Cannot hear hard sounds. Only blur of vowels, like rushing river.

Little Snaga stares at him. Frowns. Speaks again, more slowly. Only short, few words. Sounds are still blurred. He tries, tries to shape mouth, sound like rushing river, like bird. There are no hard sounds for him to shape words. Words have no shape. Fluid, thin, like air.

Little Snaga knows he is trying. Watches his mouth. Speaks again. Not same words. How can he repeat if different words every time? How can he learn bird-language if sounds are like air?

He tries. Tries to shape mouth like bird. Mouth is hard, stiff. Mouth cannot shape like bird. Little Snaga stares at mouth, stares and stares. But mouth is not bird-mouth.

I can’t, he says. Little Snaga sneers. Lip curls. Face screwed up. Is Little Snaga angry? Maybe.

Little Snaga speaks. Does not sound angry. But bird-language is like air, like water. Maybe it is not possible to sound angry in bird-language. Strange language, no way to sound angry.

Yellow-Hair is awake. Speaks. Comes over to tree. He makes himself small. Is Yellow-Hair also angry? Cannot tell. Yellow-Hair speaks less like bird, deeper, thicker. But still bird-language. Hard to tell.

Yellow-Hair cuts rope. Steps back. Time now, maybe. Maybe he can run. Little Snaga grabs arm, pulls him up. Knee is bad, legs stiff. He stands, staggers. Yellow-Hair grabs bad arm. Pulls up sleeve. Speaks.

Little Snaga speaks. Little Snaga is frightened. Why frightened? Maybe should not have touched him. Maybe should not have spoken to him. Snagas should not speak to each other.

Yellow-Hair cuts rope at wrists. Pulls arm forward. Arms ache, tied all day, all night. Yellow-Hair pulls arm forward, arm hurts. Arm is cut, tied all day, all night. Is this punishment?

Yellow-Hair speaks again. And he learns: yes. Bird-language can sound angry.

Little Snaga lets go of arm. Steps back. Frightened. Little Snaga is going to run. Leave him here. Leave him with Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair is angry. Wants to hurt. He looks at Little Snaga and knows: Little Snaga will leave him here.

He is right. Little Snaga turns, hurries away. Now he is alone. Alone with Yellow-Hair.

Yellow-Hair stares at arm. Pulls sleeve up more. What does he want? Big Orc likes hurt arms. Arms do not break. Big Orc proud. Does Yellow-Hair want this? Does Yellow-Hair know arms are strong, do not break?

Yellow-Hair looks at him. He looks at ground. Yellow-Hair speaks, quiet now. Not angry. Touches shoulder. Grip is weak. What does Yellow-Hair want?

Yellow-Hair asks something. Points. Asks again. Points at other arm. Yellow-Hair wants other arm.

Arm is cut. Other arm not cut. Does Yellow-Hair want to cut other arm?

He holds out other arm. Heartbeat is loud. Mouth dry. Yellow-Hair takes other arm. Pulls up sleeve. Still has knife. He waits. Waits for cut. Stares at ground. Yellow-Hair slides hand along his arm. What for?

Little Snaga comes back. Carrying water. He stares at bowl. Water? He tries again, bird-language. Maybe after cut, Little Snaga will give him water. If he tries. Little Snaga wants him to speak bird-language. If he tries, maybe water.

But Yellow-Hair is angry again, and Little Snaga puts bowl down. Takes arm. Grip is weak. Yellow-Hair lets go.

Yellow-Hair lets go. Ropes are cut. Hands are not tied. Yellow-Hair is not holding him. Only Little Snaga holding him. Little Snaga’s grip is weak.

Grip is weak.

Yellow-Hair takes hold of shirt. But shirt is only cloth. Shirt can tear. Now is only chance. Legs are awake. Heart is beating. Now.

He moves. Pulls arm away from Little Snaga. Uses body to knock Yellow-Hair off-balance. Runs. Maybe. Maybe he can escape. Runs fast, faster.

No. Not fast enough. Yellow-Hair is faster. Knocks him down. He tries to escape. Fights. Legs, arms. But face-down. Cannot reach Yellow-Hair. Cannot bite, cannot kick. He is stolen.

Yellow-Hair sits on legs. Holds him down. Stupid, stupid. Now Yellow-Hair is angry. Now he will punish. Should have waited. Maybe better chance later.

Yellow-Hair pulls up shirt. Heartbeat is loud in ears. Stomach tight, mouth dry. This, this is punishment?

Should have waited.

But then: nothing. Again nothing. Yellow-Hair sits. Speaks. Back is bare, but no more. Maybe it is not this. Maybe Yellow-Hair wants to whip?

Or waiting. Yellow-Hair likes it. Likes to make him wait. Knows longer wait is worse. Sits now, makes him wait. Heart thunders. Breath is short. Hands shaking. Yellow-Hair likes this.

Little Snaga is speaking. He cannot hear words over sound of heartbeat. Blood rushing in ears. Breath will not come. Yellow-Hair still holds him down. Back is still bare. Waiting.

And then Yellow-Hair gets up. Gets up, gets up. Stomach lurches. Skin crawls. Away. Get away. No more chances. Yellow-Hair is angry now. No more chances. Get away.

He crawls. Slides. Moving before Yellow-Hair is balanced. Kicks Yellow-Hair. Stumbles to feet. Runs. Chest hurts. Stomach hurts. Heart is loud.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, mistake again, ran without looking. Cliff is in way. No way out. Stupid, stupid. Only chance, gone now.

He turns, back to cliff. But Yellow-Hair is not chasing. Yellow-Hair lies on ground. Stares at him. Little Snaga stares too. Holds up hands. Why are they not chasing?

Little Snaga is talking. Words are like rushing river. Then Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair talks, reaches for him. But too far. Yellow-Hair does not get up. Cannot reach him from ground.

What do you want? he says. You are fool. Big Orc will kill you. Big Orc will tear flesh from your bones while you still live. He will make you watch him eat you. You are weak. You should run. Take your snaga and run. Maybe he will not find you.

Yellow-Hair lies on ground. Eyes are wide. Frightened. Yellow-Hair is frightened. Does he understand? Understand orc-language? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. He does not get up, does not chase. Why?

It doesn’t matter.

He turns to cliff. High, steep. But he can climb. Sets fingers and toes to cliff, ignores pain. Scrambles up. Little Snaga is calling. He climbs. Climbs to top. Runs.

Does not look back.

----

He runs until knee starts to hurt. Then stops. Hides. Listens.

No sound. Birds singing. Wind blowing. No sound of chasing.

He slips out of hiding place. Yellow-Hair let him go. Maybe understood words. Understood about Big Orc.

Now he is alone. No Yellow-Hair, no Big Orc.

Alone is not safe. Must find Big Orc. What will he say? Show Big Orc prey? Yes, he should show. Then Big Orc pleased, not angry. Maybe only small punishment. Yes. He should show.

He walks through woods. Sideways, zig-zag, criss-cross. Looking for orcs. Orcs are easy to find. Walk just so. Stand just so. Grass smells of rot. Trees look scared. Just so.

He finds orc-trail when sun still not overhead. He is thirsty. Remembers water. Best water. Cool and clean. He stops, closes eyes. Remembers water.

Good. He can remember. He can keep water. Water is his. He opens eyes, follows trail. No-one can take water.

Trail leads away from prey. He will have to lead back. Show them Yellow-Hair. Find little hollow. Maybe Yellow-Hair and Little Snaga will be gone. Maybe they understood words. If they are not gone, Big Orc will be pleased. Big Orc likes live prey.

Big Orc likes to tear prey to pieces. Likes prey still alive.

He stops again. He remembers other snaga. Other snaga screamed. Shrieked. Big Orc laughed. All orcs laughed. Other snaga was stupid. Tried to escape. Served other snaga right.

Served other snaga right.

Why did he stop? Should keep moving. He follows orc trail. Maybe not tell Big Orc about prey. Maybe tell Big Orc prey drowned. If not tell, punishment will be more. Maybe tell Big Orc about prey. Maybe not tell.

Not tell.

Punishment will be more. Punishment will be more. Hands are sweating. Heart is loud. Tell, not tell? He does not want to tell. Does not want to be punished. Does not want to tell.

Little Snaga gave him water. No-one can take water. It is in his mind. Little Snaga gave him.

Not tell. He is coming back to Big Orc. Not stolen snaga -- not for long. Big Orc will not kill. Only punish. He can survive punishment. Will not tell Big Orc about water. Tell no-one about water. Water is his.

There. What is that? He stops. Listens. Ahead, hears voice. Orc-voice. Daytime, orcs should be sleeping. What is orc saying?

You smell that? orc says. Smells like khozd shrakhun.

Blacktooth. Voice is Blacktooth. He moves fast. Must find them before they come to find him. Runs.

He falls into clearing. Three orcs -- Blacktooth, Slit-Throat, One-Eye. No Big Orc.

One-Eye. No Big Orc.

Look at this, One-Eye says. Thought that one had run off.

Never runs, that one, says Blacktooth. Too stupid.

He looks down. Makes self small. Waits.

Where’s it been? Slit-Throat asks. Eh?

He thinks. Tell One-Eye? Should wait for Big Orc.

I don’t care where it’s been, says One-Eye. It’s mine now. It’s wandering around on its own, it’s mine now.

Slit-throat laughs. Big Orc won’t like that.

Then I’ll smash his face in, One-Eye says.

One-Eye stands up. Kicks him in stomach. He falls to ground. One-Eye kicks him in ribs. Laughs. Reaches down. Grabs chain. Pulls.

Collar tightens around neck. Lifts him off ground. Metal cuts into neck. Breath is gone. He tries to get fingers behind collar. Tries to breathe. Feet kick. Cannot reach ground.

Can’t breathe.

Big Orc never let me test it out, One-Eye says, laughing. Always said khozd shrakhun strongest, never let me test it. Not properly.

Blacktooth, Slit-Throat laugh. One-Eye laughs, too. Shakes chain. Black spots now. Eyes going dark. Should have told One-Eye. Should have told One-Eye about prey.

He remembers water. Water is his.

He is glad he didn’t tell One-Eye.

Eyes black. No more breath.

He is glad.

----

Chest hurts.

Chest hurts, stomach hurts, throat hurts. Head aches. Eyes are blurry. Hard to breathe. Is he dead?

He is not dead.

He is lying on ground. Someone grips his shoulders. Cannot open eyes. Chest hurts. He breathes. Cannot open eyes. Cannot do anything. Only breathe.

Head is buzzing. Chest still hurts, but less. He opens eyes. Who is it, holds shoulders?

No-one. No-one is there. But still hands, hands on shoulders. He feels them.

Heart rises in chest. Beats in throat. He moves back, tries to tear away from ghost hands. Ghost hands disappear. Then. Then.

Little Snaga. Then Little Snaga. Little Snaga is not there. Then he is there. No time. Not even blink. Little Snaga appears from nowhere.

Heart thuds in throat. He crawls back. Hands are numb, sweating. Little Snaga is ghost? Or -- or --

Little Snaga crawls after him. Grabs arm. Pulls. He is afraid. Follows Little Snaga. Afraid of ghost. Afraid of Little Snaga.

Little Snaga drags him into forest. Speaks. He watches. Waits. Will Little Snaga disappear again?

Little Snaga is not ghost. He sits, breathes, tries to calm heart. Little Snaga eats, breathes. He is not ghost. He can appear. Can disappear. He is sorceror.

Yes. Little Snaga is sorceror. Now he understands. Little Snaga is weak. Small, bird-boned. Grip is weak. Why would Yellow-Hair want weak snaga?

But Little Snaga is sorceror.

Yes. Sorceror is valuable. Any orc would want sorceror snaga. Yes. He understands.

Orcs. Where are orcs? Buzz in head is quieting. He hears fighting. Swords. He turns. Yellow-Hair is fighting orcs. Blacktooth, Slit-Throat dead. Only One-Eye left.

He breathes. Breath hurts. Throat hurts. Heart still too fast. Too loud. He is shaking. Little Snaga hits him. Like before: open palm, no force. Hit does not hurt. Only warm. Why does Little Snaga do this?

Little Snaga is sorceror. How can he understand sorceror? Cannot understand.

Yellow-Hair fights. Good fighter. Kills One-Eye. One-Eye is dead.

Dead. One-Eye is dead. Yellow-Hair killed One-Eye. All orcs are dead. Is Big Orc dead? Where is Big Orc? One-Eye claimed him. One-Eye is dead. Who does he belong to now?

Little Snaga hits him again. Speaks. Is not angry. Is not angry when hits. Hit is so weak. What is hit for? It is not punishment. Little Snaga is weak, but not so weak. Could hit harder. What is hit for?

Yellow-Hair cleans sword. Speaks. Yellow-Hair is not angry. He kicked Yellow-Hair. Ran. Yellow-Hair chased. Now he is caught. But Yellow-Hair is not angry. Yellow-Hair killed orcs. Is strong. Yellow-Hair could kill him. Punish him.

But Yellow-Hair is not angry.

He does not understand. Little Snaga is not angry. Yellow-Hair is not angry. Orcs are dead.

Yellow-Hair goes. Little Snaga follows Yellow-Hair. Little Snaga holds his arm. Not tight. He could run. Could run again, find Big Orc.

He does not run.

----

They walk. Walk hour, two hours. Yellow-Hair stops. Speaks to Little Snaga. Points. Points at cave.

Little Snaga takes him into cave. Yellow-Hair stays outside. Draws swords. Does not look at them. Watching. Good. Yellow-Hair is not so foolish, after all.

Little Snaga fills up bowl with water from ground. He stares. Still waiting for punishment. But now water? Maybe play game again. Maybe Yellow-Hair likes drowning best. Some orcs like whip, some orcs like kick, some orcs like drown. Maybe Yellow-Hair likes drown.

But Yellow-Hair stays outside cave. Watching. Little Snaga only in cave. It is new game. He still does not know rules. But water. Mouth is dry again. Tongue is dry. Throat is dry. Does not know rules. But he knows he will drink.

Little Snaga does not give him water. Dips rag in water, rolls up his sleeve. Hurt arm. Arm hurts less now. Chest hurts. Throat hurts. Stomach aches with disappointment. Stupid. Of course no water. Yesterday water. Too soon for more. Stupid snaga, too greedy.

Little Snaga puts rag on hurt arm. Rubs. What is he doing? Blood is thick, dry. Little Snaga rubs at blood. Cleaning. Too late to clean now. Cut is already two days old. If there is sickness, sickness is already in cut. Why clean?

He stares at arm. Dried blood stiff and strong. Little Snaga has to rub hard. Pulls out hairs on arm. Underneath blood, cut is thick scab, bleeds only little. Does not look sick. Big Orc always proud. That one doesn’t get sick, he says. Whip it all you like. It doesn’t get sick.

Big Orc.

Big Orc is alive. One-Eye is dead, Blacktooth, Stinker, Slit-Throat. All dead. But Big Orc -- is Big Orc dead?

No. Big Orc is alive.

He is not bound. No rope, no chain. He could run. Only Little Snaga here. Yellow-Hair is not watching. He could run, find Big Orc. Does he still belong to Big Orc? One-Eye claimed him. Yellow-Hair killed One-Eye. Maybe he belongs to Yellow-Hair.

Big Orc will not think so.

He is stolen snaga. If Big Orc finds him, punishment will be long. Very long. End in death. But not quick death. If he runs, maybe not death. If he runs.

Little Snaga speaks. Dips rag in water. He stares at water. Could run. Should run. Stares at water. Tries to repeat what Little Snaga says. Tries. Maybe if he can speak bird-language. Maybe.

But mouth is hard. Cannot make river-sounds.

Little Snaga looks at him. Speaks. He tries. Tries to repeat. But mouth is hard.

Then, again. Little Snaga speaks. Says short word. Slow, careful. Rushing river now quieter. Hard sounds. He hears hard sounds. W. T. R. Softer than orc-sounds, but hard enough. He shapes them, tries to make mouth soft. Is it right?

Little Snaga cries out. Grabs shoulder. Grip is warm. Does not hurt. Little Snaga holds out water. Ache in stomach lets up. Water? He reaches out, slow and careful. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe he does not understand.

He does not understand. But he is not wrong. Little Snaga gives him bowl. He raises it. Tongue sticks to roof of mouth. Water.

No. He is wrong. Little Snaga shouts. Short word. Sharp. Grabs water. Throws water away. He is wrong. Wrong, stupid. Now he is greedy again. Now no more water. He looks at ground. Makes self small. Stomach aches. Now punishment. He does not care. Does not care about punishment. Cares only about losing water. For how long? Maybe days. Maybe forever.

Little Snaga speaks again. Same word, short. Less sharp now. He tries to be smaller. Tries to remember this word. This word means he is wrong. Good word. He tries to remember.

Little Snaga fills bowl again. Grips shoulder. He braces himself, but touch is weak, warm. Little Snaga speaks. Holds out bowl. Voice is quiet. Does not sound angry. But he was wrong. He knows this. Little Snaga took away water, shouted. He was wrong.

Little Snaga takes his hand. Grip is weak. Lifts hand, puts against bowl. Little Snaga says word. Wtr. He knows now. Hears hard sounds now. This word. This word means water.

He does not understand. He was wrong, greedy. Little Snaga took water, shouted. Now gives water. He does not understand.

But water. But water. But water.

He takes bowl. Looks at Little Snaga. Waits for anger. But no anger on face. He lifts bowl. Puts to lips. Waits. But no anger, no shout, no short-sharp word. Little Snaga smiles.

Little Snaga nods, smiles. It is strange smile. No anger. No hunger. No violence. Only smile. He has not seen smile like this before.

He drinks.

Throat hurts from choking. But water is cool on tongue. Cool in throat. Cool in stomach. Ache lessens. Chest hurts less. So much water. Today, yesterday. Why so much water?

Little Snaga nods like little bird. Smiles and smiles. Strange smile. Little Snaga is strange.

Little Snaga is sorceror. Is tiny man. Bird-boned, bird-tongued. Nods like bird. Smiles like -- smiles like nobody. Little Snaga is strangest creature he has seen.

He drinks. Drinks all water. Little Snaga does not stop him. Only smiles. Smile is not bad. Does not mean punishment. Does not mean hurt. What does it mean?

Nothing bad. It means nothing bad. Maybe.

Water is gone. What now? He lowers bowl. Should give bowl back? What does Little Snaga want?

Little Snaga wants to clean arm. Why? He does not know. Little Snaga is strange. But wants to clean arm. He holds out bowl. Little Snaga needs bowl, clean arm.

Little Snaga takes bowl. Says word again. Wtr. He listens. Hard sounds, yes. What are other sounds? River-sounds? He listens. This word. He wants to know this word.

Little Snaga sits. Looks at him. What does Little Snaga want? Wants to clean arm. Why does Little Snaga not clean arm? He holds up arm. Here. Here is arm. He does not speak. Does not know word for arm. Only for water.

Little Snaga laughs. Laugh is -- laugh is like stream. Like rain. Like wind in trees. Laugh is not angry. Laugh is not for hurt, is not for blood. Little Snaga laughs.

He has never seen snaga laugh before.

----

 

Little Snaga cleans arm. Sits back. Arm is clean. Cleaner than he has seen before. Skin is very pale. He did not know.

Little Snaga stares at him. What does he want? Arm is clean. What does he want?

Little Snaga rolls up sleeve. Speaks. Points at other arm. Other arm is not cut. He looks at other arm. Looks at Little Snaga. What does Little Snaga want?

Little Snaga unrolls sleeve. Rolls again. Points at arm. Little Snaga wants him to roll up sleeve. Why? Why does Little Snaga not roll up sleeve himself?

Little Snaga is strange. There is no why. Only Little Snaga is strange.

He rolls up sleeve.

Little Snaga takes arm. Grip is weak. Little Snaga’s grip is always weak. Is Little Snaga so weak? Or is grip weak on purpose?

No. Why would grip be weak on purpose? No. Little Snaga has no strength. No strength in body. Only magic.

Little Snaga stares at arm. Looks closely. Why? Arm is arm. Arm is not interesting.

Little Snaga also thinks arm is not interesting. Sits back. Rolls down sleeve. He rolls down sleeve, too. Wonders if it is right. Little Snaga does not say short-sharp word. So it is right.

Little Snaga stares at him. Takes off little shirt. Why? He watches. Wonders. Little Snaga takes off big shirt. Points at him.

Oh.

He should take off shirt. Should do this. He understands. Little Snaga wants this. But heart is frozen. Hands are frozen. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe. He does not take off shirt.

Little Snaga points at himself. Speaks. He does not recognise words. Only knows two words. Hard to hear through heart beating in ears.

Little Snaga points at him. Yes. He understands. He is not wrong. Little Snaga wants this. He is not wrong.

He takes off shirt.

But: nothing. Again nothing. Heart is beating in ears. Breath is caught in throat. But nothing. Little Snaga stares. Only stares. Looks at chest, at stomach. Why? Waiting? Is it all for waiting?

Then Little Snaga moves. Moves fast. He tries not flinch. Cannot help himself. Makes himself small. Braces himself.

And nothing. Little Snaga has stopped moving. No pain. No grip. Nothing. Little Snaga is still. Speaks. Words have no meaning. Rushing river in his ears. He cannot hear sounds over heart-beat.

He waits. Braces. But Little Snaga does not move. Does not do anything. Then kneels. Speaks again. Holds out arms. No weapons. Little Snaga is weak. Is kneeling. Smiling. Nodding like bird. Smiling like nothing else. Smile is not dangerous. No sharpness to smile.

What does Little Snaga want?

Nothing happens. Little Snaga smiles. Nods. Does nothing. Does not stand up. Does not move. Heart becomes less loud. Chest hurts less. Smile is not dangerous.

He sits up. Still small, but not so small. Wonders. Looks at floor. Why shirt off? What does Little Snaga want with shirt off?

Little Snaga moves. Slow and careful. Does not rise from knees. Moves to look at back. He waits. It is now? But it is not now. Little Snaga looks, nothing more. What is he looking at? Back is back. Back is not interesting.

Little Snaga shuffles back. On knees. He has seen snaga walk on knees before. He has walked on knees before. But Yellow-Hair is not looking. Why does Little Snaga walk on knees?

Little Snaga speaks. Puts shirt back on. He grabs own shirt, puts it on. Too quick, maybe. Should have waited. Made sure he was right. Maybe Little Snaga did not want shirt back on.

It is better, though. Shirt on is better.

Little Snaga hits him. Again weak hit. It is not punishment. Cannot be punishment. Little Snaga must know it does not hurt him. What is it for? Little Snaga is smiling. Maybe hit is good. Maybe it means no punishment. He tries to understand. Does not understand.

Little Snaga rolls up trouser leg. Points. He rolls up own trouser leg. Begins to understand. Little Snaga has looked at arms. Looked at chest, stomach, back. Little Snaga wants to look at legs. He understands.

Why? No, he does not understand why. But understands what. It is better than nothing.

Little Snaga looks at right leg. Touches, turns sideways. Looks at back of leg. What does he see there? Enough. He sits back.

Then left leg. Little Snaga looks. Stops. Smile is gone. Touches knee. Bad knee. Bad knee is wrong shape. Bone is wrong. Little Snaga frowns.

This is why Little Snaga looks? Wants to see if he is not right? If any part is not right?

Knee is not right. Many years now not right. Maybe Yellow-Hair does not want not-right snaga. What then?

But Little Snaga does not call to Yellow-Hair. Prods at knee. Feels it. Makes irritated noises. He waits. But no call. Little Snaga sits back, rolls down trouser leg. Smiles. Smile is back. Why smile, when knee is bad? Maybe not bad enough. He can still walk, still run. Still fetch, still carry. He is still good snaga. Maybe good enough.

Little Snaga speaks. Smiles. Stands up. Goes to Yellow-Hair. Should he stand, too? Should he go? Little Snaga stands sideways. One eye always on him. Little Snaga is not foolish like Yellow-Hair. Knows to watch.

But he could run. Little Snaga is watching, but Little Snaga is small, weak, short legs. Does not run fast. He could run. Should run. If Big Orc finds him like this -- no chains, no rope. Punishment will not be short. He stands. Should run. He should run.

He does not run.

Little Snaga and Yellow-Hair are talking. Then Yellow-Hair turns, comes into cave. Cannot run now. He steps back. Makes self small. Looks at floor. Now it is time?

But Yellow-Hair does not come close. Does not grab, kick, hit. Does not try to see bad knee. Only stands. Stands and speaks. No anger in voice. Bird-language can be angry -- he has heard it. Has heard Yellow-Hair speak angry words. But these words are not angry.

He watches Yellow-Hair. Keeps head down, but watches. What does Yellow-Hair want? Words mean nothing. No sign on face. Yellow-Hair stares at him. He does not know what Yellow-Hair wants. What can he do? Should be doing something. What?

Yellow-Hair makes angry noise. Yes. He is making Yellow-Hair angry now. Not doing what should be doing. What is it? He wants to do it. How can he do it, does not know what it is? He does not know how to be Yellow-Hair’s snaga.

But Big Orc. He knows how to be Big Orc’s snaga. Should run. Yellow-Hair will punish him. How can he learn how not to be punished? He cannot understand Yellow-Hair. He should run, find Big Orc.

But Yellow-Hair does not punish. Yellow-Hair leaves. Leaves cave, goes outside. No punishment. Why no punishment? Yellow-Hair is angry, why no punishment?

Yellow-Hair takes off swords. Takes off belt. Takes off coat. What now? Yellow-Hair take off jacket. Takes knives from boots. Takes off boots. Takes off almost all clothes. Only shirt and trousers left. Bare feet. No weapons. Why?

Little Snaga also does not know why. Speaks to Yellow-Hair. Voice is confused. He is glad. Little Snaga is also confused. Yellow-Hair is very strange.

Yellow-Hair comes back into cave. Kneels down. Holds up hands. Stares. Speaks.

What?

He looks at Little Snaga. What should he do? But Little Snaga does not speak. Only smiles. Nods like bird. What should he do?

He stares down at Yellow-Hair. Should not stare. Should keep eyes on ground. But Yellow-Hair is so strange. Yellow-Hair is kneeling. Kneeling on ground. No weapons, hands empty, open. Yellow-Hair is not angry. Face is -- frightened? Question? Yes. Face has question. He does not know answer. Did not understand question. He tries. Tries to repeat Yellow-Hair’s words. Little Snaga wants him to learn words. Maybe Yellow-Hair wants this, too. But he does not know words. Not water-word, not short-sharp word. He wants Yellow-Hair to say words again. Wants to listen for hard sounds. But Yellow-Hair only stares.

He should also kneel. Yes. Yellow-Hair wants this. He should not stand over master. It is wrong. Yellow-Hair kneels to show him. Like Little Snaga with shirt. He does not understand, so Yellow-Hair shows him.

He crouches. Makes himself lower than Yellow-Hair. There. It is done. But Yellow-Hair does not rise. Only stares. He stares back. Cannot stop himself. Yellow-Hair took off his swords. Took off his swords and knelt. Why did he do this? What is question?

Yellow-Hair reaches out. Slow. Not like hit. He pulls back. But it is not punishment. Yellow-Hair does not touch him. Wanted to touch, but does not touch. It is not punishment. Why touch, if not punishment? Why look? Why speak? He is snaga. What is Yellow-Hair looking at?

Two days now, he is with Yellow-Hair. Two days. Yellow-Hair killed orcs. Little Snaga gave food, gave water. They are -- they are strange. They do not hurt. He cannot describe this. Is it weakness? But Yellow-Hair is not weak. Yellow-Hair killed Stinker and Slit-Throat, killed Blacktooth and One-Eye. Yellow-Hair is not weak. But he does not punish. Does not hurt.

Why?

Yellow-Hair sits back. Nods. Stands up. Speaks to Little Snaga. Turns away. Little Snaga turns, too. They speak. Yellow-Hair puts on clothes, puts on swords. Picks up pack. Walks away. Little Snaga follows. They walk towards trees. They do not look at him.

He should follow. He is Yellow-Hair’s snaga now. Stolen snaga. Should follow.

But he is unwatched. He is still Big Orc’s snaga. If he runs, maybe punishment will be short. If he stays, punishment is long. No rope, no chains. No bruises. Punishment is very long.

He should run. He should run. But legs will not move. He watches Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga. Steps out of cave. Cannot stop watching. Thinks of water. Cool on tongue. With Yellow-Hair now two days. No punishment. Only Yellow-Hair kneeling, no weapons, question in face.

He should run.

But. But. Yellow-Hair is strong. Killed One-Eye. Killed Blacktooth. Strong, good fighter. Only looks away too much. If Big Orc comes, maybe Yellow-Hair can kill Big Orc. Maybe Yellow-Hair is stronger, strongest.

Yes. Yellow-Hair is strong. Looks away too much. But he does not look away. Never looks away. He can watch. Watch for Big Orc. Tell Yellow-Hair when Big Orc comes. Yellow-Hair will kill Big Orc. Yes. Yes.

He steps forward. One step. Two steps. Yellow-Hair and Little Snaga almost in trees now. Little Snaga looks back. Smiles. Smile is like nothing he has seen.

Yellow-Hair and Little Snaga are like nothing he has seen.

He remembers water, cool on tongue. Two days now, no punishment. He does not remember two days no punishment before. He does not understand. Does not need to understand. Only needs to know. Water. Food. No punishment. Yellow-Hair killed One-Eye, killed all orcs. Will kill Big Orc. He is stolen snaga.

Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga disappear into trees.

He follows.

Chapter Text

He follows.

Yellow-Hair does not look back. Little Snaga looks back. Looks back often. Watching him. Smiles every time. If he runs, Little Snaga will see. Will see very soon. Will tell Yellow-Hair. Still, he is behind. Thirty, forty paces. He could run.

But he will not run. Too late now. He is stolen. Stolen snaga. Yellow-Hair stole him. Fair and square. He cannot run now.

Yellow-Hair carries pack. Little Snaga, too. He carries nothing. He is Yellow-Hair’s snaga. Why does Yellow-Hair carry pack? Why does Yellow-Hair not give him pack? Pack is small. Looks light. He could carry. He is useful snaga. Yellow-Hair should not carry pack. Why?

Because. Because Yellow-Hair does not trust him. Yes. It is clear. He is new snaga. Yellow-Hair does not know. Does not know he is good snaga. Will not run. Can be trusted with pack. Yellow-Hair does not know. So Yellow-Hair carries own pack.

Yellow-Hair does not trust him. Is not so foolish, after all. Yet still, lets him walk behind. Does not bind him, does not lead him by chain. Does not look back. Only Little Snaga looks back. Yellow-Hair does not think he will run. But does not give him pack. He does not understand.

He does not understand. Wants to understand. Watches Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga. Looks for clues. Why do they do what they do? No clues to be had. Only Little Snaga, glancing back. Smiling.

It is strange, walk like this. No pack, nothing to carry. No bonds. Hands are free, empty. Hunger, thirst are only small now. Head is light from no sleep. Throat burns, arm aches, knee aches. Still hard to breathe deep. But it is only small. Small things. No sleep is not so bad. Small pains, small hunger, small thirst. No pack, no bonds. Yellow-Hair and Little Snaga are not orcs. Legs are short, walk slowly. He does not need to jog, does not need to run. It is. It is good.

It is good.

----

Rain starts falling. He watches Little Snaga. Little Snaga glances back. Smiles. Turns away. He counts heartbeats. One. Two. Three.

Three hundred and forty-one. Little Snaga looks away for three hundred and forty-one heartbeats. Then looks back. Smiles.

It is good. Long.

Little Snaga turns away again. He counts. One. Two. Three. This time, two hundred and ninety-four. Not so long. But still good. Still enough.

He counts five times. Water runs down face. Down arms. Cool. He counts five times. Sixth time, he is ready. Little Snaga looks back. Smiles. Looks away. He tilts head back, opens mouth. Rain runs into mouth, runs down throat. Cool. Fresh. Thirst is only little -- water today, water yesterday. But when will water come again? He does not know. Better to drink rain now. Does not know when rain will come again.

He counts. One hundred heartbeats. Two hundred. Closes mouth. Lowers head. Waits.

Little Snaga looks back. Smiles. Turns away.

He tilts head back, opens mouth. Counts.

----

Rain is more. He listens. Rain is good for drinking, but loud. Hisses in trees, on ground. Makes it hard to hear. He must listen. Listen for Big Orc. Yellow-Hair does not watch. He must watch.

He listens. Climbs hill. Reaches top. Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga are walking down other side. But--

But.

What? What is it? Hairs on neck prickle. He stops. Listens. Hissing rain. Dripping leaves. And. And.

Feet. Far away still. Voices. Deep. Angry. Voices do not sound like rushing river, like sighing wind.

Orcs.

He opens mouth. Wants to call out. Warn Yellow-Hair. But no words. Only knows water-word. Does not know word for orcs. If he shouts in orc-language, orcs will hear. Orc-language is strong, loud. Does not sound like rushing river, sighing wind. Orcs will hear. Orcs will know they are here. Will come to find them.

Stupid, stupid. What good is watch if cannot warn? Think better next time. Learn bird-language, learn to warn. If orcs come, orcs will kill Yellow-Hair. Too many voices. What can he do?

Hide. He can hide. Little Snaga will look back. See he is gone. Know to hide too. Little Snaga will listen for orcs. Cast spell, disappear. Make Yellow-Hair disappear.

Yes. Hide.

He steps off path. Slips into bushes. Finds place, dense, tangled. He can see path. Does not think path can see him.

He sits. Waits. Listens.

Then: Yellow-Hair is there. Little Snaga is there. They are looking for him. Speaking. Yellow-Hair is angry. Little Snaga is frightened. They have not listened. Have not heard orcs. Why do they not listen?

He opens mouth. Does not have words, but can still call out. Point, maybe. He opens mouth. But Yellow-Hair lunges forwards. Grabs Little Snaga by shirt. Lifts him up. Growls. Angry words. Furious. Little Snaga is frightened.

He does not call out.

Yellow-Hair is angry. Yellow-Hair thinks he has run. Thinks Little Snaga did not watch hard enough. Yellow-Hair will punish Little Snaga. And orcs are coming. Voices are quieter now. But orcs are coming.

He should step out. Show Yellow-Hair he has not run. But then Yellow-Hair will punish him. He cannot explain why he hid. Does not have words. Cannot warn Yellow-Hair about orcs. Yellow-Hair will punish him, and orcs will come. What can he do?

He can do nothing.

But Yellow-Hair does not punish Little Snaga. Puts Little Snaga down. Stands still. Then speaks. Walks away. Walks in direction of orcs. Yellow-Hair does not listen. Does not watch. Where is he going? To kill orcs?

No. Yellow-Hair has not heard orcs. Does not know orcs are there.

Little Snaga stands still. Stands still by path. Does not hide. Does not do anything. Stands. Orcs are coming. Little Snaga does nothing. He thought Little Snaga was clever, but he is not clever. Is as foolish as Yellow-Hair. Does not watch. Does not listen. Little Snaga will die.

He leans forward. Pushes through bushes. Grabs Little Snaga by shirt. Pulls. Drags Little Snaga into bushes. Hand over mouth. Holds him down.

Little Snaga is frightened. Struggles. Then, sees him. Tries to speak. He shakes head. Puts finger to lips. Orcs, he says. Very quiet. Orcs are close now.

Little Snaga is still now. He takes hand from Little Snaga’s mouth. Maybe Little Snaga understood. Maybe words for orcs is same in bird-language.

Little Snaga speaks. Very quiet. Yes. Little Snaga understood. But then Little Snaga tries to stand. No. Little Snaga does not understand. Little Snaga is foolish. He knocks Little Snaga down, puts hand over mouth again. Orcs, he says. Orcs.

It is stupid. Little Snaga does not understand. He keeps hand over mouth. Orcs are very close. Voices on air. He can hear words now. No fighting. No jeering. They have not found Yellow-Hair.

He stares at bushes. They are not as dense now. Dragging Little Snaga through left trail. Broken branches. It is not good. Will orcs see broken branches? See hiding place?

He hopes not.

He sits. Makes himself still. Keeps hand over Little Snaga’s mouth. Little Snaga is still, too. Does not try to speak. Does not try to move. Good.

Rain drips down back. Rain is good. Rain will stop smell. Stop orcs from smelling them. He hopes for more rain.

And then: orcs. He listens. Makes himself still. Keeps eyes open.

Orcs are talking. Talking of meat. Five dead orcs. Good food.

Orcs from cave, he understands. Stinker. Six-Finger. Orcs from cave.

Orcs are pleased. Good food. But angry, too. Prey killed orcs. Now no prey. He listens. Orcs do not talk about One-Eye, Blacktooth. Have not found them. Only orcs from cave.

And then, new voice. Angry. Sullen.

Big Orc.

Heart is loud. Beats in throat, in ears, in eyes. So loud. Maybe heart will shake trees. Ripple grass. Maybe heart will call to Big Orc.

But heart does not call. Or Big Orc does not hear.

He could. He could. Step out. Here is prey. Little Snaga here, Yellow-Hair over there. Here is prey. Here is your snaga. Not stolen snaga. Only lost. Only short time lost. Here is your snaga. Your snaga is loyal.

Could step out. Here is prey. Big Orc. Big Orc is here. And.

And then. And then orcs will kill Little Snaga. Orcs are angry. Will not care that Little Snaga is sorceror. Orcs will tear Little Snaga apart. Pull arms from sockets. Cut flesh from bone. Rip tongue from mouth. Keep Little Snaga alive as long as can. Put out eyes only when Little Snaga is dead. More fun if Little Snaga can watch.

This. This they will do.

Little Snaga is not important. He is snaga. Sorceror, yes, but still snaga. He should call out. Should call out to Big Orc.

He does not call out. Orcs pass by. Voices quieten. Words fade.

Yellow-Hair stole him, fair and square.

He does not call out.

Orcs pass by. Fade away. Orcs are gone.

He takes his hand from Little Snaga’s mouth. Little Snaga sits up. Opens mouth.

But boots. He hears boots, splashing in mud. One more orc, left behind? Heart grows loud again. He puts finger to lips. Little Snaga closes mouth. Boots come closer. Shadow at edge of clearing. Coming closer.

It is Yellow-Hair. It is not orc, it is Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair has sword. And then, he remembers. Remembers Yellow-Hair’s fury. Remembers Yellow-Hair grabbing Little Snaga. Yellow-Hair is angry. Thinks he has run. Thinks Little Snaga let him go. Did not watch hard enough. Yellow-Hair will punish Little Snaga.

But he did not run. Only hid. Hid from orcs. Will Yellow-Hair be angry? Angry that he hid? He cannot explain. Cannot tell Yellow-Hair why. Can only step forward. Show that he did not run. Will Yellow-Hair be angry?

Yes. Yellow-Hair will be angry.

He remembers fury in Yellow-Hair’s voice. Fury on face. Yellow-Hair will punish. Punish Little Snaga. Little Snaga is small, weak. Bird-boned. Yellow-Hair will punish Little Snaga because he ran.

But he did not run.

Little Snaga calls to Yellow-Hair. Steps out of bushes. Yellow-Hair turns, looks. No more time to think. He cannot explain. Cannot tell Yellow-Hair why he hid. Does not know
words. Yellow-Hair will not understand. Will be angry. Will punish.

It is better. Better Yellow-Hair should punish him. Punish him first, Little Snaga later. Little Snaga is small, weak. If punishment is bad, maybe Little Snaga cannot walk well. Maybe slow them down. They cannot slow down. Orcs are still looking. Big Orc is still looking. If Yellow-Hair kills Little Snaga, then just him and Yellow-Hair. He does not want that.

He steps out of bushes. Steps in front of Little Snaga. He is strong. He understands punishment. Can take punishment, still walk. Still work. Better Yellow-Hair punishes him first. Punishment will make Yellow-Hair less angry. More pleased. Less punishment for Little Snaga.

He cannot tell Yellow-Hair why he hid. Cannot explain. He cannot speak with words. Can only speak with body. Lifts shoulders. Lowers head. Eyes on ground. Hands loose. Makes himself small. I am your snaga, he says with body. I was wrong. I am sorry. Give me what I deserve.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Does not sound angry. Sounds frightened. He does not lift eyes from ground.

Little Snaga moves. Steps sideways, out. Why does Little Snaga do this? He steps sideways, too. Steps in front of Little Snaga. Keeps eyes on ground. Waits.

Yellow-Hair speaks again. Still not angry. He wants to look at Yellow-Hair’s face. Wants to understand. Where is anger? But he cannot look. Must not look. Good snaga does not look. He is good snaga.

Little Snaga moves again. He swallows growl. Little Snaga is foolish. Why is Little Snaga so foolish? He steps in front of Little Snaga, pushes him behind. Tries not to let Yellow-Hair see push. Stay there, he wants to say. Don’t be stupid.

But he cannot say it. Does not know bird-words. Could not speak in front of Yellow-Hair even if knew. Can only hope Little Snaga understands.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Calls out. Little Snaga answers. He braces himself. What did Yellow-Hair say? Why did Little Snaga answer? He does not know. What should he do?

He does not know.

And then: Little Snaga moves. Steps out. Takes his wrist. Speaks. Quiet. Not angry. Not frightened. Why not frightened? Little Snaga is foolish. Why not frightened?

He tries to move. Stand in front of Little Snaga. But Little Snaga does not let him. Pushes him. Speaks.

He does not understand. Frowns at Little Snaga. Tries to speak with body. But body cannot speak to Little Snaga. Body is speaking to Yellow-Hair.

Little Snaga weak-hits him. Speaks again.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Voice is not angry. Not frightened. Not pleased. He cannot describe voice. Something is wrong. He cannot describe it. He wants to look up, see face. Understand what is in voice. But does not look up.

Little Snaga weak-hits him again. Points at him. Speaks. Voice is high, bird-like. But firm. Little Snaga gave him order. He does not know what order was. He stands still. Watches Little Snaga. What was order?

Little Snaga walks away. Walks towards Yellow-Hair. Should he follow? Was that order? He starts to follow, but Little Snaga speaks again. Same order. Same word. Points. Holds up hand.

Stay. Little Snaga wants him to stay.

He stays. Watches. Does not understand. Little Snaga goes to Yellow-Hair. Weak-hits Yellow-Hair.

Hits. Hits Yellow-Hair.

He stares. Hit is weak. He is sure now, weak-hit is not punishment. But is still touch. Little Snaga touches Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair only frowns. Not angry. Only confused. He watches. Cannot understand. Yellow-Hair is not angry. Little Snaga touches Yellow-Hair, Yellow-Hair is not angry.

Little Snaga is speaking. Looking at him. Not looking at Yellow-Hair. Touching Yellow-Hair, not looking. Little Snaga is not frightened. Is smiling.

Little Snaga is insane.

Heart is heavy in chest. Breath is frozen in throat. He watches. Waits.

But nothing. Yellow-Hair does nothing. Does not hit Little Snaga. Does not kick him. Does not bite him. Only frowns. Not angry frown. Only frown.

Little Snaga speaks again. Then: leans forward. Wraps arms around Yellow-Hair.

Heart stops in chest. He takes step forward. Little Snaga is insane. How can he help Little Snaga? Cannot help. Little Snaga is dead.

But.

But.

Yellow-Hair does not kill Little Snaga. Yellow-Hair drops sword. Puts arms around Little Snaga. Rests cheek on Little Snaga’s head.

What?

Little Snaga is not foolish. He is foolish. He is wrong. He does not understand anything. Does not understand Yellow-Hair. Does not understand Little Snaga. Does not understand anything.

He was wrong. Should not have let himself be stolen. Should have stayed with Big Orc. He understands how to be good snaga for Big Orc. Understands when to speak. When to be silent. When to work. When to be still. How can he be good snaga for Yellow-Hair? Cannot understand Yellow-Hair at all. Cannot understand one thing, not even one.

He is foolish. He does not understand. Not just bird-language: bird-thoughts. Bird-actions. Give water, give meat. Run, no punishment. Hide, no punishment. Touch, no punishment. How can he know what to do? How can he know?

He cannot know.

Too late now. Big Orc is gone. He is stolen, fair and square. Stomach feels like he has stepped into unseen hole. Swooping. Sick. Hole has opened up. He has stepped into it. Ground has disappeared. Stomach crawls around inside him. Swoops. Aches. Too late now. Heart is loud. Hands sweat. Stomach aches.

He is afraid.

----

He watches.

Fear is not useful. Not now. It is too late now for fear. Now he must watch. Must learn. Watch Little Snaga. See what he does. Little Snaga is good snaga. Yellow-Hair does not punish Little Snaga. He must watch Little Snaga. Try to understand.

They walk. Day grows long. Sun sinks in sky. Rain is gone. Orcs are gone. Walk is easy. No pack. No bonds. He does not have to run. Only small pain in throat, in chest, in knee. Only no sleep. It is easy.

Walk is easy. Understand is hard. He watches.

----

They stop. Almost dark. Stop in clearing. Yellow-Hair nods. Speaks. He stops, too. Stops in trees. Watches. What should he do now? Should make fire?

No. He is always wrong. Wrong every time. Does not understand. He should not do anything. Not do anything unless Yellow-Hair commands.

He sits. Waits. Watches. Yellow-Hair stares at him. He drops head. Eyes on ground. Speaks with body. I am your snaga. I am loyal. I will serve.

Little Snaga speaks. Yellow-Hair stops staring. Does not come. Does not command. Walks away. Out of clearing. Into trees. No commands. What should he do?

Can do nothing. Only sit. Only watch Little Snaga.

Little Snaga speaks. Speaks to him. Words, sounds tumble over each other. Quick, soft, high. He listens. Holds breath, listens, curses thudding of heart for being too loud. But still does not hear. Does not hear hard sounds. How can he learn when Little Snaga speaks so fast? When there are no hard sounds?

But there are. He knows there are. He knows one word: WTR. Hard sounds are there. He must listen.

He listens. But Little Snaga does not speak again. Walks around. Collecting wood. Should he also collect wood? No. Should not do if no command. He is always wrong. Sit. Watch. Listen. Try to understand.

He listens. Little Snaga does not speak. But makes noise. Strange noise. Light. Sweet. Like little bird in tree. Noise in throat, like growl. But not growl. Singing like bird.

Singing. Little Snaga is singing.

It is not like orc song. Sounds are pure, clear. No anger in song. No violence. No fear. Words are soft. No sharp edges. He has not heard this. Never song like this. It is not like orcs. It is not like birds. It is bright, shining. Like stars. It makes pain in his chest. Not bad pain. Pain like heart wants something. Wants something, but he does not know what.

Little Snaga is making fire. Sings quietly. He should sit. Listen. But song is quiet. He wants to hear. Wants to hear song. Feel pain in heart. It is pain, but feels good. He does not understand.

He moves. Closer, closer. No trees now. Nothing to set back against. But song. Song is like flowing water. Like stars, calling to him in dreams. Remember this. Keep this in head. Star-song, wind-song. Good pain in heart. Remember this. Perhaps Yellow-Hair will punish him for moving. But now he hears song better.

It is worth it.

Then: Little Snaga sees him. Stops. Smiles. Speaks. Not angry. But stops singing. His stomach aches in disappointment. But he will remember. Will keep song in head. No-one can take it from him.

And then: new song. Little Snaga sings again. Lower this time. Faster. But still same. Clear, sweet. He cannot describe this. Cannot describe.

He creeps closer. Listens. He will remember this.

Yellow-Hair comes back. Carrying wood, carrying rabbit. He stands still, silent. Little Snaga stops singing. Speaks. Yellow-Hair takes off swords. Sits by fire.

Yellow-Hair has not looked at him. Should he move back to trees? Sits too close to fire. Should he move?

Maybe. Maybe Yellow-Hair does not want him to move. He does not know. Yellow-Hair does not look at him. Little Snaga does not look at him. Starts to sing again.

He does not move.

And then: Yellow-Hair sings, too. No words to Yellow-Hair’s singing. Only makes noises in throat. Deep. Clear. Sounds twine around Little Snaga’s song, like vines in forest. Sometimes, two voices chime together into perfect sound. Not one sound: two sounds, but sounds are like one. Like made to be together. He cannot describe. It makes sharp pain in heart. Makes throat tight. He wants it to stop. Wants it to never stop. It is better than -- it is better than anything. It is better than anything that has ever been.

Song goes on. Two voices, threaded through each other like vines. When song ends, there is no time for disappointment. Yellow-Hair starts to sing again. Sings with words this time. Voice is louder. Sound is broad. Dark. Not like stars. Like space between stars. Like darkness in caves, in deep hollows filled with trees. Darkness to hide in. To wrap around like blanket. Yellow-Hair’s song feels warm. Like there is nothing to be afraid of.

It is wrong. Darkness is full of fear. He knows this. It is not safe, to not be afraid. It is foolish. But Yellow-Hair’s song. Yellow-Hair’s song makes him feel like it could be safe. It is foolish, so foolish.

He listens anyway.

Night goes on. Yellow-Hair sings. Little Snaga sings. He sits, listens. Listens with everything he has. Heart aches. Good pain. Almost too much. But he can bear it. Song is worth good pain. Is worth almost too much. Maybe they will not stop. Keep singing until no more breath left in body. Until stars fade. Until flesh melts from bones. Keep singing until nothing left but dust. It would not be so bad.

But it is not so. Singing ends. Singing was long. Not long enough. He would have listened. Would have listened until death from thirst, from hunger. But singing ends. Darkness is full of fear again. But.

But it is less. Fear is less. Foolish, foolish. But Yellow-Hair sang. Yellow-Hair sang like darkness in caves. Yellow-Hair killed One-Eye, killed Stinker. Yellow-Hair let Little Snaga touch him. Yellow-Hair sang like darkness in caves.

Fear is less.

Yellow-Hair is cooking rabbit. Cuts meat from spit. Turns. Yellow-Hair has not looked at him since came back.

Looks now.

He drops head. Makes self small. But looks. Looks at Yellow-Hair’s face. Should not look. But Yellow-Hair sang. Sang like darkness between stars. How can he know what Yellow-Hair wants if not look at Yellow-Hair’s face?

He looks.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Holds out meat. Does not look angry. Does not sound angry. He stares at meat. What does Yellow-Hair want? He looks at Little Snaga. Little Snaga smiles. Makes motion like eating.

Eat? Yellow-Hair wants him to eat? He raises hand. But no. He is not right. Is it game? Is it like water game? What are rules?

Yellow-Hair speaks again. Moves forward. Walks on knees. Why does Yellow-Hair walk on knees? Yellow-Hair is not snaga. He does not understand.

Walk on knees is not important. Smell of meat is in his nostrils. Stomach cramps. Meat only yesterday. Now meat again today? It is game? He stares at meat. Mouth is filled with saliva. Can it be right?

Yellow-Hair moves again. Stretches out hand. Meat in hand. Should -- what should he do?

Meat. He lunges forward, takes meat. Scrambles back. Meat in hand. Warm. Greasy. Mouth waters. Was it right? He sits still, watches Yellow-Hair. Ready to give meat back. Ready to brace himself.

But Yellow-Hair does not snarl. Does not raise hands. Only sits and nods. Nods. Nod means it was right. Means -- means he should eat.

He should eat. He understands. Does not understand why. But understand what he should do.

He eats.

Meat is warm. Fresh. Not burned. Not only bad parts: all parts of meat. Taste is thick, salty. Stomach cramps. Hands shake. Grease is thick on tongue, in throat. Warmth spreads out from stomach. He eats. Eats fast. When meat is gone, he licks bones. Chews bones. Taste of meat still on tongue. Warmth in stomach. So warm.

Little Snaga and Yellow-Hair are talking. He tries to listen. Cannot listen. Chewing on bones. Chewing is loud in head. He bites down hard. Tries to snap bone. Get at marrow. Cannot listen.

Bone snaps. And then: Yellow-Hair is reaching out again. Holding out more meat. More meat? He stares. Holds snapped bone in hands. Tastes grease on tongue. More meat? Why?

Maybe it is game. Maybe. But he has seen this now. Has seen what he should do. It is same. He should do same. Does not understand why. But why is not important. He knows what he should do.

He stretches forward. Takes meat. Stares at Yellow-Hair. Is it right?

Yellow-Hair nods. It is right. He stares at meat in hand. More meat. Why?

Why is not important.

He eats.

----

Yellow-Hair gives him all rabbit. He has never had whole rabbit before. Stomach is full after half rabbit. He does not care. When will there be meat again? He does not know. Eats everything. Stomach aches. Too full. He did not know stomach could be too full. It hurts. He listens to pain. Remember pain. It is good pain. Stomach too full.

Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga do not eat rabbit. Eat only dried meat. Why? Maybe do not like fresh meat. But ate fresh meat yesterday. Maybe -- maybe rabbit is poisoned. Could be. No. Could not be. He watched Yellow-Hair cook rabbit. No poison. Probably.

He thinks about stomach. Warm. Full. Too full. Thinks about meat. Taste still on tongue. Hot. Greasy. Not burned. If rabbit is poisoned, he will die. Is it worth it?

Yes. It is worth it.

When rabbit is gone, Little Snaga looks at him. Speaks. Waves hands, points at fire. Smiles. Nods. What does Little Snaga want? Does he want him to build fire? Fire is built. Fire does not need more wood. What does Little Snaga want? He frowns. Listens to words. Tries to hear. But only knows two words. WTR and short-sharp word. Does not hear these words. Watches Little Snaga. Tries to understand. But does not know words.

Yellow-Hair does not speak. Is not angry at Little Snaga. Lets Little Snaga speak. He understands now. Little Snaga is allowed to talk. Talk to him, talk to Yellow-Hair. Touch him, touch Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair allows this. Why? Maybe Yellow-Hair is only foolish. Does not understand how to keep snaga. Does not know when to punish snaga. Maybe this.

But Little Snaga carries little sword. Barefoot, but carries sword. Does not walk behind. Does not carry Yellow-Hair’s pack. Tiny man, weak, but sorceror. Is Little Snaga even snaga at all?

Maybe. Maybe not. He does not understand Yellow-Hair. Does not understand Little Snaga. Maybe not snaga at all. Or maybe Yellow-Hair is foolish. Yellow-Hair has not punished Little Snaga. But also has not punished him. He is snaga. This he knows. Yellow-Hair does not know how to keep snaga. This he knows.

Little Snaga grows quiet. Stares at him. He looks back. Looks at ground. Looks back. Yellow-Hair watches him, too. He does not look at Yellow-Hair. Sees him watch from edge of eye. Why does he watch? What does he want?

Then Little Snaga speaks. River-words, rushing, tumbling. Then: orcs. Orcs, says Little Snaga. Speaks in orc-language. Hard sounds are soft in Little Snaga’s mouth. Orcs, he says.

He sits up. Looks around. He has not been watching. Has not been listening. Stomach is full of food. Head is is full of sleep. He has not been listening. Orcs have come.

But Little Snaga holds up hands. Says short-sharp word. Not sharp now, but still short. Shakes head, speaks. River-words. He understands. No orcs. Still, he has been foolish. Has not been watching. Has not been listening. He sets ears to listen. Clears sleep from head. Dark now. Orcs travel at night.

Little Snaga comes closer. Hits him on shoulder. Speaks. Slow, careful. One word only. Hard sounds careful, clear. Same word, three times. Little Snaga wants him to know word.

Yes. Yes, yes. He wants to know word. Word for orcs. Wants to know many words, all words. Wants to learn bird-language. Yes, yes. He stares at Little Snaga’s mouth. Hard sounds are same. Same word, almost. He shapes sounds. R. K.

Little Snaga nods. Orcs, says Little Snaga, and then RK.

Orcs, he says, and then thinks. Thinks about mouth, about tongue and teeth. Mouth is hard, stiff. But orc-word is hard, too. Harder than other river-words. RK, he says. RKS.

Little Snaga smiles. Wide, shining. Speaks. Voice is bright, like water. Looks at Yellow-Hair. Smiles.

Yellow-Hair smiles, too. Speaks. Yellow-Hair is pleased. Pleased he learned bird-word. This is what Yellow-Hair wants. Good. Good, good. He has learned one thing that Yellow-Hair wants. He remembers word. RKS. This word. Yes, he knows this word. He turns back to Little Snaga. Hopes for new word.

Little Snaga is silent. Then, points. Points at him. Then points at Yellow-Hair. Says word. This word is not hard. Hard sounds are soft, like wind in trees. F, he thinks. Little Snaga says word again. Again. Yes, F. W, F. He thinks about tongue, about teeth. WF, he says.

Little Snaga nods. Smiles. But word is not right. Does not sound right. He frowns. Listens. Little Snaga says word again. Yes. There is third sound. Sound at beginning. D. Yes. He did not hear this sound.

DWF, he says. Little Snaga smiles with whole face. Yellow-Hair smiles too. Yellow-Hair says word. Yellow-Hair is pleased. Good. It is good. He has learned word. Little Snaga nods and nods. He wants to ask, what does word mean? But he does not know how. Knows four words. Water-word, short-sharp word, orc-word, and new word. Short-sharp word means he is wrong. What does new word mean?

He cannot ask. Sits back. Thinks. Little Snaga pointed to Yellow-Hair. DWF is Yellow-Hair’s name? Or means master? Little Snaga also pointed to him. Why? Maybe only pointed to him to show he should learn word.

Yes. Pointed to him to show he should learn word. DWF is Yellow-Hair’s name. Or means master. Yes, he decides. One or other.

He thinks about words. Thoughts are growing thick and blurry. Head is filling with sleep. Stomach is warm, too full. He shakes head. Must listen for orcs. Must remember new words. RKS. DWF. But no sleep last night. Few hours only night before. No sleep night before that. Head is full of sleep.

He should not sleep. Must not sleep. Listen for orcs. Yellow-Hair is foolish, does not listen, does not watch. He will listen, will watch. He will not sleep.

Little Snaga starts new song. He listens. He watches.

He sleeps.

Chapter Text

Orcs come next day.

Sun shines. Trees are less. Grass under feet. Cool, soft. He follows Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga. out from forest. Down from hills. Onto grassy plain. Towards house. Follows. No pack. No bonds. No pain in stomach. Eyes are clear. Head is clear. Only small pain in knee. Grass is cool. Sun is warm. He follows.

And then, orcs come.

He hears orcs first. Not soon enough. Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga do not hear orcs. Not listening, not watching. Looking at house. Always at house. Not listening. Do not hear orcs.

He hears orcs. Voices on wind. Heavy feet. He looks back. Sees shadows in trees. Far away.

Not far enough.

He shouts. Wants to shout in bird-language, but heart is frozen. Stomach is sick. Mind is blank. What is bird-word? Word is gone. Mind is empty. Only fear. Only orcs. Orcs, orcs. Orcs, he shouts. Shouts in orc-language. Bird-word is gone from mind. Hopes Little Snaga will understand. Hopes they will look.

And he runs.

Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga look back. See him. See orcs. He sees fear on faces. But they do not run. Little Snaga stands, stares at him. Yellow-Hair runs. Runs in wrong direction. Runs towards orcs.

Why is Yellow-Hair running towards orcs? Will Yellow-Hair fight orcs? Too many orcs. Yellow-Hair will die. Yellow-Hair is foolish.

He runs. Grass smooth, even under feet. Knee hurts. But he runs. Heart pounds. Breath tight in throat. Eyes water. He hears orcs behind him. Far away. But coming closer.

He runs.

Yellow-Hair runs towards orcs. No, not orcs. Yellow-Hair does not look at orcs. Looks at him. Runs towards him.

Why? Why does Yellow-Hair run towards him? Orcs are coming. Why does not Yellow-Hair run away?

And then, Yellow-Hair is there. Grabs his hand. Turns back towards house. Runs. Little Snaga runs now too. All running now. Good. All running from orcs. Yellow-Hair pulls on his hand. Why? Why did Yellow-Hair come back to pull him by hand?

Maybe Yellow-Hair thought he would run to orcs. Would go back to orcs. Maybe this is why. But why does Yellow-Hair pull hand? Why not pull chain?

He does not understand. Wants to tell Yellow-Hair: cannot go back to orcs now. Can never go back to orcs. I am your snaga now. I am loyal. But does not know words, and breath is short. Needs breath for running. Needs everything for running.

Yellow-Hair runs fast. Low and hard. Knee hurts. But he can run. Can run as fast as Yellow-Hair. Knee is still bad after three days. Big Orc stamped hard. But he can run.

And then he falls. Puts foot into rabbit hole. Knee wrenches under him. He stumbles. Yellow-Hair drags on hand. He falls.

He scrambles to feet. Stumbles again. Hunches shoulders. Eyes on ground. I was wrong, he says with body. I was wrong. Give me what I deserve.

Yellow-Hair lets go of hand. Tears pack from back. Holds it out. Yes. Yes, carry pack. He takes. Yes, he should carry pack.

Yellow-Hair turns away. But does not run. Stands. Bends knees. Yellow-Hair holds out hands by hips. Speaks.

He stares. What does Yellow-Hair want? Orcs are coming. What does Yellow-Hair want?

Wants to carry him. He knows this. Bent knees. Hands out by hips. Yellow-Hair wants to carry him.

But no. He must be wrong. Yellow-Hair cannot carry him. He is snaga. Yellow-Hair is master. What does Yellow-Hair want?

Yellow-Hair glances over shoulder. Frowns. Speaks. Words sharp now. Shakes hands.

Must be carry. Can only be carry. Makes no sense. But Yellow-Hair makes no sense.

What if he is wrong?

Orcs are coming. If he is wrong, Yellow-Hair will kill him. If he waits, orcs will kill him. Better for Yellow-Hair to kill him. Death is less long. He hopes.

He draws breath. Clenches fists. Climbs onto Yellow-Hair’s back.

Yellow-Hair does not punish him. Does not growl. Only runs. Runs fast, even with heavy burden. Pounding feet, rattling sword. Sword is so close. He could take sword. Yellow-Hair does not know how to keep snaga. Carries snaga, lets snaga close to sword. Yellow-Hair does not know.

Yellow-Hair is carrying him.

Eyes are watering. Air stings cheeks. Yellow-Hair is warm. Grip is strong on legs. Back is warm against chest. It is strange, to be so warm. He thinks about Little Snaga. Little Snaga wrapped arms around Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair wrapped arms around Little Snaga. Was it warm? Was it warm like this?

House is closer now. Fence around house, high, thick. Gate is open. Little Snaga is almost at gate. Runs slow. Short legs. Yellow-Hair is close behind Little Snaga now. Orc voices are coming no closer.

Little Snaga disappears inside fence. Yellow-Hair reaches gate moments later. Lets go of him. He slides off back. Turns to see Little Snaga.

Little Snaga.

There is man. Short man. Broad. Thick hair. Beard. Man is furious. Eyes flash with anger. Face twisted. Man holds Little Snaga. Man is short, but Little Snaga much smaller. Tiny in man’s hands. Man holds Little Snaga off ground. Shakes him. Man is furious.

Orcs are outside fence. But inside fence not safe either. Man will hurt Little Snaga. Will kill. Little Snaga has sword. But cannot fight. Is weak. Is small. Man will kill Little Snaga.

He runs. Yellow-Hair will kill man. But Yellow-Hair is not fast enough. Does not watch hard enough. Man will kill Little Snaga before Yellow-Hair draws sword. And so: he runs. Man has not seen him. Has not seen Yellow-Hair. He can surprise man. Knock man down. Give Little Snaga chance to run. Yellow-Hair chance to draw sword.

He crashes into man. Knocks man off-balance. Man does not fall down. But does drop Little Snaga. Stumbles back. He steps in front of Little Snaga. Crouches. Yellow-Hair will kill you, he says. Little Snaga is not your snaga. Yellow-Hair killed five orcs. He will kill you.

He expects man to attack him. Crouches, waits. Man is taller than him, broader. Has knife in belt. He hopes Yellow-Hair will be quick, draw sword. But he is ready to fight.

But man does not attack. Man stares. Mouth falls open. Face grows pale. Stumbles back. Man is frightened. Terrified.

Yes, he says. You should run. Yellow-Hair will kill. Little Snaga is not your snaga. Go, run.

But man does not run. Only stands and stares. Face is white like moon. Eyes are huge. Terrified. But not looking at Yellow-Hair. Not terrified of Yellow-Hair. Looking only at him. Why terrified if looking only at him? He falls silent, waiting. But man does nothing. Only stares.

And Yellow-Hair does not draw sword. Does not attack man. Man tried to hurt Little Snaga, but Yellow-Hair does not attack. Only steps forward. Speaks.

Speaks. Speaks to man. Yellow-Hair knows man. Does not attack. Man is not enemy.

No. He was wrong. Was wrong again. He is always wrong. Yellow-Hair knows man.

But man attacked Little Snaga. Little Snaga is not man’s snaga. Belongs to Yellow-Hair. How can man attack Little Snaga? Why does Yellow-Hair not attack man?

Man speaks. Voice is quiet, hoarse. Sounds frightened. Ill. Face is still white. Man is tall, broad. Looks strong. But ill. Weak. Maybe not worth attacking. Maybe Yellow-Hair just lets man die.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Man replies. Lifts hand. Speaks to Yellow-Hair. But does not look at Yellow-Hair. Looks at him. Why? He stays crouched. Does not think man will attack. Man is weak. Frightened. But why does he look? Why stare?

Yellow-Hair speaks again. Sounds wrong. Not angry. Not frightened. But wrong. Sounds ill. He wants to look at Yellow-Hair. Is Yellow-Hair ill? Yellow-Hair must protect them. If Yellow-Hair is ill, orcs can come. Or man. Maybe man will get better and kill Yellow-Hair. He wants to look, see if Yellow-Hair is ill. But cannot take eyes from man.

Man stands straight. Speaks. Strides towards him. Now. Now he attacks. Reaches out hands. Does not draw knife. Only reaches. But man is taller, broader. Does not need knife.

He steps back. Wants to look at Yellow-Hair. Why does not Yellow-Hair stop man? Man is standing now, walking. Man is not so ill any more. Is Yellow-Hair ill?

But he cannot look. Steps back and back. And then: Little Snaga. Little Snaga steps in front of him. Waves arms. Shouts. What is Little Snaga doing? He is small, weak. He cannot stop man. Only Yellow-Hair can stop man. Man will crush Little Snaga.

But man does not crush Little Snaga. Man stops. Looks down at Little Snaga. Speaks. Speaks to Little Snaga. Little Snaga looks up at man. Not frightened. Why is Little Snaga not frightened?

Man pushes Little Snaga aside. Walks forwards again. He steps back. Man is coming for him. Yellow-Hair is doing nothing. Has not even drawn sword. Man is coming. He looks around. Can he run? Inside fence now. But gate is open. Orcs are far away. Not coming closer. Can he run? Should he run?

Little Snaga is speaking. But man does not stop. Yellow-Hair has not drawn sword. Man will come. Will kill him. He attacked man. He was wrong. Wrong again. Yellow-Hair has not drawn sword.

And then: Yellow-Hair steps forward. Steps between him and man. Does not draw sword. Puts hand on man’s chest. Speaks. Not angry. Quiet. Sounds ill.

Yes, he is wrong. Yellow-Hair knows man. Man is not enemy. What is man? What is--?

--man is Big Man.

No. Can it be? Man is not tall. But taller than Yellow-Hair. Broader. Can it be? Yellow-Hair knows man. Not enemy. Yellow-Hair came to this house. Man was at this house. Man is Big Man?

Maybe. And if man is Big Man--

Heart stutters in chest. Throat grows narrow. He attacked man. He attacked. If man is Big Man. If.

He looks at gate. Orcs are far away. Can he run? Hands are sweating. Is man Big Man? Can he run?

Little Snaga is there. Puts hand on his arm. Speaks. Little Snaga is watching him. Holding him. He cannot run. He has made mistake. Too many mistakes. He let Yellow-Hair steal him. Yellow-Hair is strange. Yellow-Hair does not punish. Why does not Yellow-Hair punish?

Because Yellow-Hair is not Big Man. He let Yellow-Hair steal him. But Yellow-Hair did not steal him for himself. Stole him for Big Man. That is why no punishment. That is why.

So many mistakes.

Man and Yellow-Hair are talking. But man does not look at Yellow-Hair. Looks only at him. Stares. Speaks. Voice is angry. Man is angry.

Yes. Yes, man is Big Man. Yes, he was wrong. He was so wrong. Gate is open. But he cannot run. Too late now. Too late.

Big Man speaks. Steps towards him. He steps back. Should not step back. Should let Big Man come. See him. Test him. He is Big Man’s snaga. He does not want to be Big Man’s snaga. But he is. He should let him come. But he is afraid. He should not step back, but he does. He is too afraid. Fear is making him stupid.

Big Man stops coming. Face grows ill. Anger is gone. He turns. Goes with Yellow-Hair towards house. Sits by house wall. Why did he stop coming? Has not seen him. Has not tested him. Why did he stop coming?

Little Snaga pulls him. He follows. Keeps head down. Watches Big Man from under hair. Big Man is staring at him. But does not come. Does not test him. Does not punish him.

Is he wrong? He has been wrong. So many times wrong. Is man Big Man? He does not know. Cannot ask Little Snaga. Wishes Big Man would look at Yellow-Hair. Stop staring at him. But Big Man does not stop.

Little Snaga takes him into house. Closes door. Door is big. Heavy. Clicks when closes. Door is closed.

He stares at door. Outside is Big Man. Outside is fence. Beyond fence: orcs. Door is closed. No way out now. No way out from house. From fence. From Big Man. From orcs. He is trapped. He has made so many mistakes.

Little Snaga speaks. Smiles. But he does not understand words. Does not understand Big Man. Does not understand Yellow-Hair. Understands only one thing: door is closed.

----

House is big. He has seen houses before. Been inside houses. Places where men live. Houses are small. Dark. Mostly burned. Smell of death.

This house does not smell of death. Smells of grass and flowers and animals. Filled with light. Hazy, bright. Dust dances in light. He has not seen house like this before.

Door is closed. Outside is Big Man. Big Man will come in. But he is outside now. Outside with Yellow-Hair. Only Little Snaga inside. And light. Little Snaga and light.

Little Snaga makes him sit on bench. Speaks. Goes to other side of house. Works. Cooking. Searching for something. Should he work, too? No. Wait for command.

He waits.

No commands come. Little Snaga comes back. Holds two cups, two plates. Plates have bread. Holds one cup out. Smiles.

He takes cup. Concentrates. WTR? he asks. Stares into cup. More water already?

But Little Snaga shakes head. Smiles. Speaks. Does not say water-word. But gave him cup. He should drink.

He drinks. It is water. But hot, scalding. Burns mouth, burns tongue. He drops cup, spits, frantic. This is game? Give water, boiling hot? It is game? Or punishment? Pain in mouth radiates through skull. Tongue is numb, too thick in mouth. He bites on fingers, tries not to cry out.

Little Snaga does not look pleased. Did he play game wrong? Little Snaga shakes head, says short-sharp word. Short-sharp word means he is wrong. But Little Snaga gave him cup. Wanted him to drink. Why was he wrong? Why punishment now? He has done so many things. Run, kicked Yellow-Hair, hidden in bushes. No punishment. Now punishment? Why now? How can he know? He needs to know. Does not understand what he did wrong. How can he know not to do it again? What did he do?

Little Snaga looks angry. Takes plate. Lunges forwards. He flinches back. Makes himself small. Looks at floor. Tries to protect face. What did he do? Why punishment now?

But Little Snaga does not hit. Does not kick. Does not burn. Only sits back. Sits quiet. Puts down plate. Quiet one moment, two. Then Little Snaga grips his arm. Grip is very weak. Does not hurt. Little Snaga pulls his arm down. Away from face. He lets it go. Little Snaga’s grip is weak, but he should obey Little Snaga. This he understands. Little Snaga is maybe snaga, maybe not snaga, but he should obey him.

Little Snaga hits him. Weak hit. This is not punishment. What does it mean? Means he is not wrong. Maybe. But Little Snaga gave him scalding water. Tongue is still numb. No skin on roof of mouth. Was he wrong? He does not understand.

Little Snaga picks up bread. Holds it out. Moves very slowly. Speaks. He looks at floor. But can see bread from edge of eyes. Little Snaga holds it out.

Should he take bread? Yes, he thinks. Should take bread. But he thought he should take cup. Should drink water. And then -- short-sharp word. He was wrong. Should he take bread?

Little Snaga holds out bread. Insistent. He looks at bread. Bread is very white. Covered in yellow paste. Little Snaga shakes bread. What should he do?

He takes bread.

Little Snaga nods. Good. He was right. What now? He stares at bread. Very white. No mould. Feels soft against fingers. He has never seen soft bread before. Why is it so soft? Bread is not supposed to be soft.

Little Snaga speaks. Picks up bread from other plate. Eats. Smiles. Nods. Coughs.

He understands. Smile is he is not wrong. Nod is he should do this. He bites into bread.

Bread is soft in mouth. So soft. Tastes clean, fresh. Not like bread should taste. No damp, no mould. It is strange.

And then. And then.

Something happens. Bread taste is still there, but something else. Sweet, golden. Sweetness on tongue. Sweeter than ripest berries, golden like sunlight. Smooth, bright, like eating flowers. He has never. Never.

He spits out bread into hand. Stares at it. How does it taste like this? Taste is still on tongue. Sunlight. Flowers. How can bread taste like sunlight? And then he understands. Yellow paste. Yellow paste is made of sunlight. He stares. He did not know food like this could exist.

Little Snaga speaks. Not pleased. Little Snaga reaches out to take bread from him. He knows he should give bread. Should obey Little Snaga. But sunlight is bright, golden on tongue. He does not think. Does not think clearly. Thinks only of sunlight on tongue. Little Snaga reaches for bread, and he does not think. Only crams bread in mouth, new bread and bread already chewed. Sunlight bursts across tongue. Smooth. Warm. He stares at Little Snaga. Does not chew bread. Does not swallow. Only tastes sunlight on tongue. If Little Snaga is angry, he can spit bread out. Maybe punishment is less.

But Little Snaga is not angry. Little Snaga laughs. Laughs. Little Snaga reached for bread, and he did not give bread. Now Little Snaga laughs. No punishment. Not even short-sharp word. He does not understand. He does not understand.

Sunlight is warm on tongue. Soothes away burn of boiling water. He does not understand.

Little Snaga is not angry. He chews. Swallows. Bread is so soft. Paste is so sweet. He licks fingers. Runs tongue around mouth. Around lips. Little Snaga still has bread. Bread has yellow paste. He stares at paste. Tastes ghost of sunlight in his mouth. How long will it stay there? He stops swallowing. Maybe if stops, taste will last longer.

Little Snaga holds out bread. He stares. Was already staring at bread. Now staring more. What does it mean? Bread is Little Snaga’s bread. Little Snaga ate part of bread. Little Snaga cannot want him to eat bread.

But he does. Little Snaga does same thing as before. Shakes bread. Nods. Smiles.

He takes bread. Waits. But Little Snaga does not get angry. Does not take bread back. Only smiles.

He eats bread. Tries to go slow. Keep sunlight on tongue. But bread is gone too fast. He licks fingers. Licks again. Remember this. He will remember sunlight on tongue.

Little Snaga stands up. Goes back to other side of house. Comes back. Comes back with more bread.

He stares. Little Snaga holds out bread. Two pieces of bread already. Mouth is sticky with sunlight. How can there be more?

But there is more. Little Snaga holds out bread. Smiles. Nods. Is he wrong? Why does Little Snaga give him more?

Why does not matter. He takes bread. Eats, slow as he can. Little Snaga watches him. Smiles. Why?

Why does not matter. Bread matters. Only bread matters.

When third piece is gone, Little Snaga picks up cup. Points at cup. Speaks. He does not understand words. Listens for WTR, but does not hear it. Little Snaga points. Blows on cup. Nods. Points at cup. Points at him.

He frowns. Water is not hot now. Why does Little Snaga want him to drink it now? It is not hot. Will not hurt.

Little Snaga blows on cup again. Speaks. Blows on cup. Cheeks fill with air, round like apples. Lips purse. Blows like wind, loud like wind in trees.

Little Snaga is strange.

He looks at cup. Should he also blow? Blow will make water less hot still. Will not hurt.

But -- but. When he drank boiling water, Little Snaga said short-sharp word. Word means he is wrong. He was wrong to drink water. But Little Snaga gave him cup. Why was he wrong?

He feels like something is moving in his mind. Thoughts coming together. He does not understand. But thinks he almost understands. Thoughts are moving. Why was he wrong? Because-- Because--

Door opens. Big Man strides in. Thoughts scatter.

Big Man.

Stomach lurches. Taste of sunlight on tongue turns bitter. He makes himself small. Looks at ground. Lets hair fall across face. Maybe Big Man came in for something else. Maybe Big Man wants bread, wants sunlight-paste. Maybe just cold outside. Maybe. Maybe.

Big Man sits down in front of him. Breath catches in throat. Heart thuds in ears. No maybe.

Big Man is here for him.

He sits. Silent. Still. He is good snaga. He can speak with body. Knows how to be still. Knows how to be silent. He wants to curl up. Protect stomach. Protect head. But he is good snaga. Knows he cannot curl up. Only be silent. Only be still.

Big Man sits. Watches him. He stares at ground. He understands now. Understands why Yellow-Hair did not punish. Why he did not kill. He is not Yellow-Hair’s snaga. He is Big Man’s snaga. Heart thuds in ears, in throat, in fingers. Quiet, he thinks. Quiet, heart. Big Man will hear.

Big Man reaches out, grips chin. He braces himself. Keeps eyes on ground. But Big Man does not pull hair. Does not pull chain. Only speaks. Voice is deep, rumbling. Bird-language sounds broad, round. Does not speak like Little Snaga, like rushing river. Speaks like rumble of earthquake, like avalanche. But words are same. Words, words. He does not understand words.

Little Snaga touches him. Runs hand along arm. Weak-hits. Why does Little Snaga do this? He does not know. But weak-hit is warm. Feels warm. Makes heart thunder little less. Why? He does not know. Only that is it warm.

Then: Yellow-Hair. Yellow-Hair comes, sits down. Speaks to Big Man. Big Man lets go of chin. He draws in breath. Quiet, quiet. But breath. Little Snaga still keeps hand on arm. It is warm.

Khozd shrakhun, says Big Man. Heart stumbles, stutters. Big Man speaks orc-language. Words are flat, broad, sound wrong, but still orc-language. Big Man knows what he is. He bows head. I am khozd shrakhun, he says with body. Tell me what I should do.

But Big Man does not tell him anything. Does not even look at him. Looks at Yellow-Hair. Angry. Yellow-Hair speaks. Big Man replies. Angry.

Khozd shrakhun, says Little Snaga. Voice is quiet. Orc-words sound wrong in mouth, hard sounds are soft, blurred, voice is high, like bird. But still. He turns. Bows head. He does not understand. Does Little Snaga speak orc-language? No. Does not speak. But knows this. Knows what he is.

But Little Snaga does not tell him what to do. Only speaks to Big Man. Big Man, Yellow-Hair, Little Snaga all speak to one another. No-one tells him what to do. Why do they call him, not give him orders?

Khozd shrakhun, says Yellow-Hair. He turns. Bows head. Scared now. Does not understand. He is wrong. He is doing wrong. Must be doing wrong. Why do they keep calling him? What should he do? He waits. Waits to find out what to do.

But no-one tells him. Big Man grabs him, grabs chin again. Big Man is angry. He is wrong. Has done wrong. He should have done something. They called him. But he did not do anything. What should he have done? Big Man is angry. He braces himself. Stomach lurches. What should he have done?

Big Man speaks. Angry words. He stares at ground. Tries to speak with body. I am your snaga, body says. I am loyal. But body is stiff, shaking. He cannot make body speak well. Heart is loud, too loud. Big Man is angry.

Big Man leans closer. Speaks. Louder now. Angrier. He is only making Big Man angrier. But he does not know how to make Big Man less angry. Does not know what he should do. What should he do? He cannot ask. Cannot find out. Doing nothing makes Big Man angrier. But he does not know what to do.

Yellow-Hair speaks. Not to him: to Big Man. Yellow-Hair is not angry. And then: Big Man lets go of chin. Sits back. Stares. Does not speak. Big Man is still angry. But not holding chin any more. He can let head fall, let hair fall. Speak better with body. I will obey. But how? How obey, when cannot understand commands?

Big Man stands. Speaks angry words. Walks away. Does not punish. Angry, but does not punish. He is not good snaga. Does not know how to be good snaga for Big Man. Should have stayed with Big Orc. But Big Orc is outside fence. He is inside fence.

Too late now.

Yellow-Hair gets up. Goes away. Not outside. Only to other side of house. Now only Little Snaga. Little Snaga is not angry. He wants to ask Little Snaga what he did. What he did to make Big Man angry. But cannot ask. Does not know words. Can only stare at floor. Listen to heart beating in ears. Too loud, too loud. Stomach aches with fear. Taste of sunlight long gone now. He is not good snaga.

Little Snaga speaks. Hits him on knee. This is good, hit. Hit is warm. Hit means he is not wrong. Maybe.

Little Snaga says word. Loud, clear. New word. Points at him. Yes, he understands this. Little Snaga wants him to learn word. But he is scared. Stomach hurts. Heart is loud. Muscles are frozen. Does not want to look up. Big Man is gone. But he is still scared.

Little Snaga points. He draws in breath. Little Snaga wants him to learn word. He must learn word. Must obey Little Snaga. Needs to learn words. Cannot understand what to do if no words.

He lifts eyes from floor. Stares at Little Snaga’s finger.

There. Finger is safe. Can look at finger. No danger in finger.

He looks at arm next. At shoulder. And then: face. It is not safe, look at face. But it is not Big Man’s face. Only Little Snaga’s face. He looks. Little Snaga is smiling. Not angry. Heart begins to quieten.

He glances at door. Will Big Man come back? Yes. He will come back. When? He does not know. He looks at Little Snaga. Wants to ask. But no words.

Little Snaga speaks. Points at him. Says new word. Short word. Two hard sounds. K. L. He listens. Listens for soft sounds. Practices making mouth soft. Then says word. KL. Quiet. Does not want Big Man to hear.

Little Snaga nods. Speaks. Says word again. KL. Soft sounds are different. He said them wrong. He tries again. KL. Does not know what word means. What does word mean?

Little Snaga leans forward. Speaks quietly. Khozd shrakhun, says Little Snaga. He bows head. Yes, he is khozd shrakhun. Yes, he will obey. But Little Snaga makes him lift head. Makes him sit up. Says short-sharp word. Why short-sharp word? How can he be wrong? Little Snaga spoke orc-language. He understands orc-language. How can he be wrong?

Khozd shrakhun, says Little Snaga, and then KL. KL, he says again.

He does not understand. And then: understands. KL means khozd shrakhun. Is bird-word. Means khozd shrakhun. Yes. He understands. But cannot say he understands. Does not know yes. Only water. Only orcs. Only khozd shrakhun.

He puts hand on chest. KL? he says.

Little Snaga nods. Face is pleased. He is right. He has done this right. Heart quietens further. Yes, this. He understands this. KL is khozd shrakhun.

Little Snaga turns. Points at Yellow-Hair. New word. F. Stars with F.

Yellow-Hair-word does not start with F. Yellow-Hair-word is DWF. He frowns. DWF, he says.

Little Snaga shakes head. DWF, he says. Then again. Makes soft sound loud, long. Soft sound is important. It is not DWF. It is Dwarf.

He frowns. Makes mouth soft. Soft sounds are not easy. All in wrong places in mouth. He tries. Dwarf, he says. Makes soft sound long. Word does not start with F. Ends with F.

Dwarf, says Little Snaga. He points. Points at him. At Yellow-Hair. Dwarf, he says. Then points at Yellow-Hair. FL, he says. No. It is not FL. Soft sounds are important. It is fili. What does it mean?

Little Snaga points at him. KL, he says. It is kili. He understands this. It means khozd shrakhun.

Kili, he says. Points at himself. He understands this. Little Snaga nods. Smiles. Points at Yellow-Hair.

He stares at Yellow-Hair. Dwarf, he says. He knows Dwarf is Yellow-Hair. Little Snaga pointed at Yellow-Hair. Today, and before, in woods. Pointed at Yellow-Hair. Said Dwarf. Dwarf is Yellow-Hair’s name. What does Dwarf mean? Maybe it means yellow hair.

Little Snaga sighs. Shakes head. Fili, he says. Points at Yellow-Hair. Dwarf, he says. Points at him. Points at Yellow-Hair.

He does not understand. Yellow-Hair is Dwarf. But Yellow-Hair is fili? Why does Little Snaga point at him also?

Maybe fili means master. But Yellow-Hair is not master. Big Man is master. What does fili mean?

Maybe Dwarf is not name. Maybe fili is name. But what does Dwarf mean, if not Yellow-Hair’s name? Dwarf does not mean master. Yellow-Hair is not master.

Maybe Yellow-Hair is Little Snaga’s master. But then why not stop Big Man punishing Little Snaga? Maybe Big Man is Yellow-Hair’s master. Maybe Yellow-Hair is snaga, too.

No. Yellow-Hair is not snaga.

What does Dwarf mean?

Little Snaga points. Speaks. Again and again. It is clear: fili is Yellow-Hair only. Dwarf is Yellow-Hair, but also him. He cannot think of anything that is both Yellow-Hair and him. He does not have yellow hair. He does not know what dwarf means. But it is not Yellow-Hair’s name. Yellow-Hair’s name is Fili.

Little Snaga waves arms. Points. Waves arms like bird. Fili, he says. Dwarf. Fili. Fili. Little Snaga is strange. Strange little bird.

Fili, he says. Points to Yellow-Hair. Little Snaga smiles. Nods. Hits him on knee. It is good. Hit means he is not wrong. He hopes for more hit. Hit is warm.

Little Snaga speaks. He listens for words. But no dwarf. No Fili. No words he knows.

Yellow-Hair -- Fili, Yellow-Hair’s name is Fili. Fili comes over. Sits down. Speaks. Two words. Second word is kili.

Kili, he repeats. Wants to show Yellow-Hair he has learned word. He is good snaga. Learns what he is told.

Yellow-Hair is, is -- Fili is surprised. Stares. Mouth open. Speaks to Little Snaga. Fili is pleased. Voice is pleased. Face is pleased. Yes. He was right. Yes, this he understands. Learn words. Please Fili.

Little Snaga points at Fili. Now he is not sure. Should say dwarf? Should say Fili? He is not sure. Wants to please. Please Little Snaga. Please Fili. Does not want to be wrong.

Dwarf, he says. Hopes he is right.

Little Snaga shakes head. He is wrong. Fili, he says. Must be right this time.

Fili cries out. Smiles. Smiles with whole face, whole body. He has not seen this before. Smile like this. Fili speaks. Bows. What? Why does he bow? He does not understand this. He is snaga. Should not bow to snaga. He cannot understand.

But Fili is not angry. Fili is pleased. Fili sits up, grabs his hand. Holds firm, but does not hurt. Does not try to twist hand, to pull back fingers. Only holds hand between his hands. Feels warm. Fili is pleased. Smiles with whole face. Smile is bright, dazzling. Like sun in forest, when leaves move aside. Hand feels warm. Whole body feels warm. No anger in smile. No violence. It is like sun in forest.

Fili speaks. Fili, he says. And kili. These two words, over and over. Why does he say them together? Words sound same. Only first sound different. It is strange. Bird-language is strange. He tries to listen for other words. But Fili does not say other words. Only two words: Fili. Kili. Strange, words sound same. Maybe all words in bird-language sound same.

Little Snaga jumps up. Goes away. Not outside. Only away. Only Fili now. But fear is less. Fili smiles. Bright, dazzling. Smile makes him feel warm. Makes fear less. Smile means Fili is pleased. He wants this. Wants to please Big Man, wants to please Little Snaga, wants to please Fili. Wants to be good snaga.

Wants to make Fili smile again.

Chapter Text

Little Snaga calls to Fili. Fili goes, helps Little Snaga. They are carrying wooden tub. Big tub, heavy. Should he go? Should he carry tub? He shifts, clenches fists. He is snaga. Should be working.

No. Should not do unless command. No command. Fili and Little Snaga do not look at him. Do not command. He should not do anything.

He sits. Stares at tub. Fili, Little Snaga put tub in front of fire. Lift up heavy pot. Pot is steaming. Full of water. They pour out pot into tub. Second pot, also in tub. Water is hot, steaming. What are they doing? Cooking? Tub is very big. Too big for cooking. But water is hot. Why fill tub with hot water?

Cooking, maybe. Maybe more people coming. Maybe need lots of food.

He stares at tub.

Tub is almost filled with water. Fili comes to him. Takes arm. Speaks. Smiles. He stands up. Follows Fili. Fili takes him to tub. Smiles. Points.

He stares at tub. Tub is full of water. Hot. Steaming. He does not understand what tub is for.

Little Snaga speaks. Smiles. He does not understand words. No words that he knows. What does Little Snaga want? What is tub for?

Little Snaga speaks again. Points at him. Fili also speaks. Tugs on his shirt. Smiles.

Little Snaga points. Takes off little shirt. Nods. Points.

Yes. He understands. He has seen this before. Little Snaga wants him to take off shirt. Why? Arm is not hurt any more. He looks at Fili. Fili stares at him. Smiles. Tugs on shirt.

Maybe he is wrong. Why take off shirt? Arm is not hurt. Barely hurts any more. No new injury. Why take off shirt. He is wrong. He must be wrong.

Does not take off shirt.

Little Snaga frowns. Looks at Fili. Fili shrugs. Speaks. Voice is quiet. Slow. No words he understands. Fili tugs on his shirt. Smiles.

Little Snaga points at him. Takes off own shirt. Points. Nods. Yes. He was right. Little Snaga wants him to take off shirt. Why? He stares at tub. Water is steaming. Why take off shirt?

Fili is standing very close. Touches his arm. Takes off own shirt. Points.

Fili is very close. Smiling. But not bright smile, now. Smile is less.

Very close.

He takes off shirt. Takes off fast. Holds in hands. Clenches tight. It is not cold. Summer outside, fire inside. Not cold. But skin crawls. Itches. He can feel Fili’s breath on his shoulder. Fili is not smiling now. Angry. Angry and close, very close. No shirt. Very close.

Fili takes shirt from him. He feels breath catch in throat. Holds on too hard. Must not hold on. Fili wants shirt. He must give shirt. He lets go.

Shirt is gone. Fili drops it on floor. Too far away to reach. Shirt is gone.

He stares at ground. Wraps arms around self. Digs fingers into ribs. Skin is crawling. Fili is angry. Angry and close.

Little Snaga speaks. Points. Points at him. Tugs on own trousers. Points at trousers. Points at him. He stares at ground. Lets hair fall over face. He knows what Little Snaga wants. Wants him to take off trousers. He knows this. Throat is tight. Stomach aches. He knows.

He does not take off trousers.

Little Snaga looks at Fili. Speaks. Fili shrugs. Touches his arm. Touch sends crawling feeling across skin, chest, back, neck, scalp. Tongue feels too big for mouth. He digs fingers into ribs. Fili is staring at him. Little Snaga is staring. Why stare so much? He is only snaga. He is not interesting.

Little Snaga points at trousers. Speaks. Yes. Yes, he understands. Should take off trousers. But fingers are frozen. Digging into ribs. He cannot make hands move. Cannot do what Little Snaga wants. He is bad snaga. Should do it. But cannot.

Fili shakes head. Speaks. Touches his arm. Fili reaches down to own waist. Starts to unbuckle belt.

He moves. Does not mean to move. But moves anyway. One step only, short. But enough. Heart thuds in throat, in fingers. Should not have moved. Should have stayed where Fili wanted him. Should do what Fili wants. Should not have moved.

Too late now.

But Fili is not angry. He looks. Looks from under hair. Fili is not angry. Fili is not unbuckling belt. Fili is -- looks -- looks --

Frightened. Maybe. He is not sure. Not angry. Not smiling. He is not sure.

Fili is not unbuckling belt. Hands are raised, palms outwards. Fili is staring.

Little Snaga speaks. He is frowning. Angry? No. Voice is not angry. Voice is quiet, slow. He speaks. Looks at Fili.

Fili steps back. One step, two. Three. Steps back, steps away. Hands still raised. Does not reach for belt. Does not reach for him. Why this? Why do this? What does Fili want?

Little Snaga steps forward. Reaches out. Lays hand on arm. Hand is warm. Does not make skin crawl. Little Snaga rubs arm. Gentle, slow. Stares up at him. Points. Speaks. Face is not angry. Not frightened. Face is -- is--

Pleading. Face is pleading. Like snaga looks, begging for life. But Little Snaga is not begging for life. He cannot hurt Little Snaga. Little Snaga does not beg for life. Only wants him to take off clothes. Only wants this.

He looks at Fili. Fili stands still. Hands raised. Three steps away. He cannot feel Fili’s breath any more.

He forces hands to move. Unwraps arms from chest. Reaches down. Unties lace. Steps out of trousers.

Naked now. He stares at floor. Hunches shoulders. Makes self small. Little Snaga picks up trousers. Drops them with shirt. Too far away. Clothes gone now. He wraps arms around chest again. Waits.

But Fili does not move. Little Snaga steps away. Points at tub. Speaks. Looks at him. Points at tub.

Tub. What about tub? He should move tub? Should carry tub?

Tub is very large. Full of water. He does not know if he can carry tub without spilling water. Very heavy.

And -- he is naked. Why carry tub naked?

No. He does not understand.

Fili moves. Does not step closer to him. Steps closer to tub. Kneels beside tub. Points at water. Speaks. He hears word, kili. Word he knows. Does not know other words.

Little Snaga speaks. Points at water. Not tub, water. He stares. Stares at water. Yes. Yes, understands. Little Snaga wants him to get into tub. Into water.

Throat closes. Hearts beats in ears, in eyes, in mouth. Stomach aches. Water is hot, steaming. Yes, he understands. Little Snaga gave him hot water before. Burned mouth, burned tongue. Now Little Snaga wants him to get into tub. Tub is full of hot water. Yes, he understands. This is punishment. Punishment for attacking Big Man. He understands.

Stomach aches. Feels pain of burn in roof of mouth. He has been burned before. Many times burned. But never whole body. Never whole body in boiling water. What will it feel like, whole body burned?

It will hurt.

He tries. Tries to step over to tub. But body is made of stone. Will not move. Stomach aches. Mouth aches. Body is made of stone. Cannot move.

Fili points at water. Little Snaga points. Speaks. Two words he knows, kili, WTR. Yes, he understands. He should go in water.

He does not move.

Fili speaks. Stares. Little Snaga speaks. Then Little Snaga puts hands in water. Hands, arms. Up to elbows in water.

He stares.

But Little Snaga does not cry out. Does not even flinch. Only stares up at him. Speaks. He is wrong. He is wrong again. Water is not boiling. Steaming, but not boiling. Little Snaga is not strong, but hands in water. Yes. He is wrong.

Fili speaks. Kili, kili. Stares at him. Face is -- pleading. Like snaga, begging for life. But Fili is not snaga. Fili looks at him, pleading. Why does he look like that? He is not snaga.

He steps closer. Water is not boiling. He hesitates. Steps into tub.

Water is warm. Not boiling, only warm. Does not hurt. Not at all.

Little Snaga gets up. Pushes on shoulders. Wants him to sit down. Sit down in tub.

He sits down. Water is warm. Why is he in tub? He does not understand. Naked, sitting in water. Fili, Little Snaga staring. Sitting in water. Why?

It is game. Is it? Same game, only with tub instead of river. Is it? He stares at water. Tries to make self small. Body is not stone. Ice now. Ice in stomach, in heart, in throat. He is not burning. Water is not for burning. Water is for game.

Fili speaks. Little Snaga nods. Little Snaga reaches out. But does not push him under water. Takes hand. Hand is clenched. Pressed to chest. Little Snaga takes hand. Pulls. Hand is stiff. Clenched. He stares at water. Little Snaga pulls at hand. He draws in breath. Unclenches hand. Lets Little Snaga pull hand away from chest.

He waits. Big Orc’s mark is on arm. Fili has not seen before. Has not seen arm, not seen Big Orc’s mark. Fili will be angry. Want to burn away Big Orc’s mark. He waits. Makes self small.

But Fili does not look at arm. Sits behind him. Pulls hair. Weak pull, does not hurt. Keeps pulling. Does not look at arm.

Little Snaga stretches out arm. Holds up rag. Dips rag in water. Rubs rag on arm. Arm is wet. Why? Little Snaga has something in hand. Small, grey. Like bread, but smooth. Too smooth to be bread. It is food?

Little Snaga rubs rag against grey thing. Rubs rag against arm. Rubs hard. What is Little Snaga doing?

Little Snaga dips rag in water. Rubs grey thing. Rubs arm. Over and over. Rubs hard. Hurts. But only little hurt. This is not punishment. What is it?

Little Snaga has rubbed dirt from arm. Clean patch now, red from rubbing. Little Snaga nods at clean patch. Dips rag. Rubs grey thing. Starts to rub new part of arm, next to clean patch.

Cleaning. Little Snaga is cleaning arm.

He watches from under hair. Why cleaning arm? Arm is not hurt. He does not understand. Thinks about all things Little Snaga has done, but cannot understand cleaning arm. Clean skin feels strange, tingling. Air is cool. He stares at water. Does not understand.

Little Snaga cleans. Cleans and cleans. Cleans until whole arm is clean. It is strange. Whole arm has never been clean before. Arm is white and red. White scars, red scars. Strange.

Little Snaga lets go of hand. He pulls arm back. Fili has not seen. Still pulling hair, has not seen Big Orc’s mark. Good. Maybe not see, not tell Big Man. Big Man will not want Big Orc’s mark on him.

Little Snaga takes other hand. Stretches out arm. Cleans.

It is strange.

----

Little Snaga cleans. Cleans and cleans. Cleans arm, other arm, leg other leg. Chest, back. Cleans. Cleaning is long. Hours. Fili pulls hair. Makes hair wet. Hair hangs down back. Wet, smooth. Fili runs hand through hair. He has never done this. Hair is smooth.

Little Snaga is tired. Wet. Does not smile. Dips rag in water. Leans forward. Rubs rag on cheek.

He stares at water. Water is cold now. He is cold. Cold, clean. Skin feels strange. Less stiff. Air is cold on skin. Whole body is white scars, red scars. He had not seen so many scars before. Can see even small ones now. Many scars.

Little Snaga scrubs at face. He keeps eyes down. Little Snaga will clean face. When face is clean, whole body is clean. He is more naked now. More naked than he has ever been. Face has never been clean. It is good, dirty face. Easier to hide. He thinks about clean face. Clean face is not right. Why clean face?

Maybe Big Man knows. Knows dirty face easier to hide. Knows tangled hair easier to hide behind. Maybe Big Man doesn’t want him to hide. Thought feels sharp in belly. Little Snaga looks at him often. Fili stares, always stares. They are always watching him. Why? Why does Big Man want to see him clearly?

He does not like clean face.

Little Snaga scrubs at face. Scrubs and scrubs. Cheeks, chin, forehead. He does not look at Little Snaga. Keeps eyes down. Little Snaga is very close. Then Little Snaga touches him. Speaks. He looks up. Little Snaga points at eyes. Closes eyes. Open eyes. Points at him.

He understands. He closes eyes.

Little Snaga cleans eyelids. Very weak, cleans eyelids. Not scrub like arm, like cheeks. Cleans only weak. Long, long time. Eyes are closed. He listens. Listens hard. Fili is behind. Pulling hair. Little Snaga in front. Cleaning eyelids. Big Man does not come in. He listens. But Big Man does not come in.

Then Little Snaga stops cleaning eyelids. Touches him. Speaks. He opens eyes. Slowly. Not sure if it is right. Little Snaga smiles at him. Nods. It is right.

Face is clean. It is strange, clean face. Feels less stiff. Easier to frown. To close eyes. To open eyes. Air is cold on face. Hair is wet, straight, smooth. Face is naked. He is naked. Has never been so naked.

Fili speaks. Puts hands on shoulders. He is stupid. Thinks too hard about nakedness. Does not think hard enough about Fili. Does not think until Fili has pushed him down. Until mouth is under water. Then, too late to think. Water is in mouth, nose. Water is in eyes. Cannot breathe. Can only drown. Drown, or get away. He struggles, tries to reach surface. He is stupid, stupid. Of course, water is game. Game is strange, not same game. But end is still same. He struggles.

But game is not same. Fili does not hold him down. Lets go. Does not fight. Lets go.

He does not wait for next part of game. Throws himself from water, from tub. He is naked. Nothing to hide behind. Clothes are gone. Dirt is gone. Hair is gone. Nothing left. He is out of tub, on floor. Naked in middle of room. Fili is staring. Little Snaga is staring. They always look, look look look. Why do they look? He wishes he could be invisible, like Little Snaga. But he is not sorceror.

He is in corner of room. Does not remember going to corner. It is dark. Wall at back. It is better.

Fili is nearby. Kili, he says. Kili, kili. Fili tried to drown him. Took away hair. Took away clothes. He presses back into corner. Tries to make self small. Wishes to be invisible.

He is not invisible.

Door opens. Big Man. Big Man is coming in. He makes self small. Stares at floor. Cannot be small enough. Clean, clean, too clean. Should not have run from game. Should not have run. Now Big Man will be angry. Fili will be angry.

Big Man comes towards him. Speaks. Angry. Picks up cloth. Big Man is coming for him. He braces himself. Waits. Throat aches with fear. He is not ready.

But Big Man does not come. Fili stands up. Turns to Big Man. Speaks. Shakes head.

Big Man is angry. Angry with Fili. Why? Maybe Fili should not have let go. Should have held him down in water. Maybe this. Fili is not snaga. Will Big Man fight Fili?

Big Man does not fight Fili. Gives Fili cloth. Still angry. Big Man’s anger fills room. Face is bright with it. Hard to look at. But does not fight Fili. Only gives him cloth.

Little Snaga takes cloth. Big Man is angry with Little Snaga. Who is Big Man angry with? Little Snaga, Fili, him? Maybe Big Man is angry with everything. Maybe Big Man is just angry.

It is not good. Not good, have master always angry. He feels cold. Tries to be smaller. But not small enough. Never small enough.

Little Snaga kneels on ground. Stares at him. Holds out cloth. Speaks. Big Man does not come closer. Fili does not come closer. But they watch. They stare. Why stare? He watches Little Snaga. Does not look at Fili, at Big Man. But feels them looking at him.

Little Snaga comes closer. Slowly, slowly closer. Walking on knees. Voice is quiet, slow. Not angry. Face is not angry. Little Snaga did not try to drown him. Little Snaga does not punish him. Only with burning mouth. Only once punish. Little Snaga is strange.

He watches. Little Snaga comes closer. Closer. Holding out cloth. What does Little Snaga want? Should he take cloth? What is cloth for?

Fili, Big Man watch. Watch Little Snaga, watch him. Big Man is angry. But does not move closer. Only Little Snaga moves closer. Slowly, slowly. Moves closer until close enough to touch. Then leans forward. Puts cloth on back. Wraps around. Speaks. Quiet. Slow.

Big Man is angry. Speaks. Angry words. But does not move closer. Turns away. Fili turns away. They go. Move away. He watches. But Little Snaga does not move away. Sits in front of him. Little Snaga is not angry. Wraps cloth around him. Cloth is warm.

Little Snaga shivers. Little Snaga is not warm. Speaks. Points to fire. Should he give Little Snaga cloth? Little Snaga is not warm. Cloth is warm.

Little Snaga points to fire. Smiles.

He looks at fire. Tub is in front of fire. He looks at tub. Does Little Snaga point to fire? Maybe points to tub. Maybe wants him to go back in tub.

He does not want to go back into tub.

Little Snaga looks at him. Smile is gone now. Little Snaga stands up. Speaks. Walks away. Goes to tub. Fili also goes. Little Snaga, Fili try to pick up tub. Big Man searches for something in pack.

He is alone.

Alone in corner. Nobody looking. Nobody watching. He shifts. Lets cloth slip down back. Wraps more tightly round front. Looks up. Fili, Little Snaga, Big Man. No-one watching. He shakes head. Shakes again. Hair is wet, smooth, straight. He shakes head again. Hair falls in front of face. Wet is bad. Hair is stringy. But better. Better than before. No-one is looking.

It is better.

Fili, Little Snaga spend long time moving tub. Tub is very heavy. He should help. He is snaga, should move tub. But he does not help. Does not move. Sits in corner. Wall at back. Wall at left, at right. Good view of door. Corner is good. House is good. Houses have corners. Maybe he can stay in corner now. Maybe they will not look at him any more. He is only snaga. Not interesting.

But Little Snaga comes back. Tub is gone, empty. Little Snaga comes back. Hits his arm. Points to fire. Smiles. Shivers. Smiles.

Should he give cloth? No, should not give cloth. Little Snaga will take cloth if wants cloth. He should not do anything. Should not do anything unless command. He is always wrong. Should not do anything.

Little Snaga points at fire. Points, points. Speaks. Smiles. Points.

Yes. He understands. This is command. It is quiet. Not angry. But command. Little Snaga does not know how to give command. Or he does not know how to hear it.

He does not understand words. Frowns at Little Snaga. He should tend fire? Fire is blazing. Warm. Fire does not need tending.

Little Snaga stands up. Points at him. Points at fire. Kili, says Little Snaga. Many other words. Only understands one.

He stands up. Slow, careful. Is he right? He watches Little Snaga. Little Snaga smiles, nods. Yes. Stand up is right. Little Snaga grabs arm. Pulls towards fire. Out of corner. He follows. Feels air at back. Corner was better.

Big Man stops searching through pack. Straightens up. Holds out blue shirt. Holds out to Fili. Fili takes shirt. Big Man nods. Speaks. Reaches down. Reaches for his clothes. Clothes are still on floor. Big Man takes clothes. Throws them in fire.

Clothes. Big Man throws clothes in fire. Clothes are gone.

He reaches out. Cannot stop self. Clothes. Clothes are gone. Gone into fire. Little Snaga stops him. Stops him from getting clothes. Little Snaga does not want him to have clothes. Fili took clothes, Big Man burned clothes, Little Snaga stopped him from getting clothes. He is not allowed clothes. Skin crawls. He will always be naked now? He pulls cloth tighter. It is not clothes. But better than nothing.

He watches clothes burn.

Big Man is staring. Staring at him. Frowning. Speaks. Angry words. Comes closer. Very close. Reaches for him. He has done something wrong. Should not have tried to get clothes. Now Big Man is angry. Is looking at him again.

But Big Man does not touch him. Fili puts hand up, stops Big Man’s hand. Speaks.

Big Man does not touch him. But stares. Stands very close. Stares and stares. He looks at ground. Braces self. Heart is thundering in ears. Big Man is angry. Very close.

Big Man speaks. Voice is low. Dark. Big Man is very angry. Fili speaks. Big Man even more angry. Anger is like wave of heat. Makes air hard to breathe. Scrapes across skin. Angry, angry. Big Man is so angry, but does not punish. Does not grab, does not hit. Why does Big Man wait?

Big Man reaches out. He braces himself. But Big Man does not touch. Hand is close enough to feel heat from skin. But does not touch. Only stares. Speaks. Speaks to Fili. Fili speaks back. Back and forth. Talking. But Big Man is angry. Does not punish. Does not fight Fili. Only speaks.

Little Snaga takes cloth from him. Cloth must also burn? He lets go. Stares at floor. Big Man does not want him to have clothes. He is not allowed clothes. Yes, he understands. Snaga should not have things.

But Little Snaga does not take cloth away. Wraps cloth around waist. Tucks tight. Cloth does not fall down.

Big Man stares at him. Angry, angry. What did he do? Why so angry? Does Big Man see Big Orc’s mark? No. Mark is hidden between arm and side. Maybe Big Man is angry because he wore cloth wrong. But Big Man is so angry. Can Big Man be so angry over small thing? Over wearing cloth wrong?

Maybe. He hopes not. He does not know how he should wear cloth.

Big Man does not touch. Does not reach out. Only stares. Walks around. Stands behind him. Silent. Angry.

He wishes he was in corner. No-one looking. He tries to remember it. Be in corner. Wall at back, at sides. No-one looking. Remember this. It was better.

Big Man speaks. He was angry before. Now even more angry. He has never heard anyone so angry. Orcs are often angry. But not like this. Not like this.

Stomach twists and aches. Jaw is tight, teeth hurt. Heart beats too fast. So fast. He thinks heart may die. Beats in ears, in throat. He stares at floor. He cannot see what Big Man is doing. Can only wait.

Heart beats too fast.

Big Man touches him. Touches back. Traces lines, patterns. Does not scratch. Does not hit. Only traces.

He braces himself. Breath is too shallow. Eyes are blurry. Stomach is sick. Arms, legs ache from bracing. Why does Big Man wait? Why wait so long? Big Man is angry. So angry. Why not punish?

Then: Big Man grabs chain. Pulls. Pulls on collar. Yes. Big Man is not waiting any more. He understands. Draws breath in deep. Does not know when next breath will come. It is better. Better for punishment now, better than waiting longer.

But Big Man does not choke him. Only keeps pulling. Pulling on collar. Why does Big Man pull? Should he do something? Does Big Man want something? Or maybe -- maybe punishment will be long. First stare, then touch, then pull, then worse and worse. Stomach is sick. He braces himself. He is ready. Is ready.

No. He is not ready.

Little Snaga speaks. Little Snaga is angry. Voice is high, like bird. Words like rushing river. But angry. Not angry with him. Angry with Big Man.

Little Snaga is angry with Big Man.

Stomach is sick. Little Snaga is foolish, so foolish. Big Man will kill Little Snaga.

But Big Man does not kill Little Snaga. Only speaks. Angry words, but does not hit. Does not kill. Does not even touch. Only speaks.

And Little Snaga. And Little Snaga speaks again. Angry words again. Little Snaga is -- is--

Is not snaga. Little Snaga cannot be snaga. He is wrong. He has been wrong, days now wrong. Snaga cannot speak angry words to Big Man. Cannot do this. Little Snaga is not snaga. What is Little Snaga?

Big Man lets go of collar. And then: walks away. Big Man, Little Snaga walk away. Go outside. Gone.

Knees are weak. Stomach sick. Empty stomach would be better. Less sick than full stomach. But no. He thinks about sunlight on tongue. Sunlight is worth sick feeling. Head feels light. Too light. Eyes blur. He remembers. Remembers he should breathe. Does not need to hold breath. Big Man is not here. Big Man did not choke him.

He breathes.

Only Fili here now. Fili is quiet. Not angry. Watches him. But not angry. Speaks. Voice is quiet, slow. Words like quiet river. Kili, he says. Many other words. But only understands one.

Only Fili now. Little Snaga is gone. Big Man is gone.

He hopes Big Man does not come back.

Chapter Text

Fili is talking. Talking to him? No-one else in house. Big Man is gone. Little Snaga is gone. Only him.

He watches Fili. Does not look straight. Watches without being seen. Fili is talking. Looking at him. But he does not know words. Why do they talk to him? They know he does not know words. But they talk. Talk and talk. Look and look. Why? Why not give him work, let him do work? Why not leave him alone?

But Fili does not give him work. Does not leave him alone. Only talks and looks.

He keeps head down. Heart is still too fast. Breath is still tight in chest. Big Man is gone. But Big Man will come back. When? He does not know. What are Big Man and Little Snaga doing outside house? Fighting? Big Man cannot fight Little Snaga. Little Snaga is weak.

But Little Snaga is sorceror. Maybe can fight with magic. Maybe Little Snaga will win, will kill Big Man. Then Little Snaga will be master. Will be Big Snaga.

It would be good. Little Snaga as master. He should not think about it. It is stupid. Little Snaga cannot win fight with Big Man. He should not think. But he thinks. Moment. Two moments. Lets himself think. Little Snaga as master. It is good.

Fili speaks again. Touches his arm. He tries to stay still. But arm jerks. He looks at Fili, quick, short. Is Fili angry?

No. Fili is not angry. Fili is calm. Quiet. Holds out trousers. Speaks.

He stares at trousers. Brown, clean. No holes. Do not need washing. Do not need mending. What should he do with trousers?

Fili shakes trousers. Speaks. He should take trousers. He reaches out. Takes. Cloth is sturdy. Soft. He holds trousers. Looks at Fili. What should he do?

Fili points. Points to him. Points to trousers. Points to own trousers. Nods. Asks question.

He looks at trousers. He does not understand.

Fili points. Points again. Same as before. Does not help. He still does not understand. He needs more words. Wishes Little Snaga would come back, teach more words. Little Snaga knows how to explain things. Fili does not know.

Fili takes trousers back. He is stupid. Wanted work. Wanted work to do. But now Fili has taken work away. He was too stupid to understand work. Now work is gone.

Fili holds trousers out. Holds like he will put trousers on. This was work? He should have helped Fili put trousers on? But Fili is already wearing trousers. He does not understand.

Fili holds out trousers, but does not step into trousers. Only holds out. Speaks. Nods head at trousers. Looks at him.

He should -- he should put on trousers?

Big Man burned his clothes. Fili took them, Big Man burned them. Now he has cloth. Cloth around waist. Snaga should not have clothes. He understands this. But. But.

Fili holds out trousers. Nods.

He draws in breath. Hopes he is not wrong. Steps into trousers. One foot. Stops. Waits. Looks at Fili. But no anger on face. Nods. Smiles.

Second foot. Stands still, unsure. Fili pulls up trousers. Ties at waist. Takes off cloth. Speaks. Smiles.

Yes. He was right.

It is better. It is so much better, have clothes. Heart slows, breath comes more easily. He waits until Fili turns away. Touches trouser leg. Cloth is soft. So soft. Clean, soft. No holes. It is mistake? Snaga should not have good clothes. Maybe Fili will take trousers again.

But Fili does not take trousers. Turns back. Holds out blue shirt. Shirt is clean. No holes. Blue is deep. He stares. Shirt has patterns. Patterns on front. Black lines along blue. Like flowers, or scars, or water flowing. He wants to touch. Trace patterns. But does not touch.

Fili holds out shirt. Shakes shirt. Speaks. Shirt is for him? He should wear shirt?

No. No, no. Shirt is -- shirt is. Blue. Patterns. Snaga does not wear shirt like this. Even Big Orc does not wear shirt like this. He should -- he should --

What? What should he do?

Fili touches his arm. He does not jerk. Good. He is good snaga. Fili takes arm, lifts. Arm is high now, sticking out. Fili lets go. He keeps arm high. Fili nods. Takes other arm. Lifts. Both arms high. Fili nods. Puts shirt over arms.

Yes. Yes, he should wear shirt. But shirt is blue. Shirt is not snaga shirt.

He stands still. Stiff. Holds out arms. Fili pulls shirt over arms, over head. Tugs shirt down. Shirt is on now. Fili takes arms. Pushes arms back down. Stands back. Smiles.

Shirt is big. Very long. Very wide. Sleeves cover hands. Hem covers knees. Cloth is warm. Soft. So soft. He has never touched cloth so soft. It is soft on arms, on chest, on back. He shifts weight. Only little move. Cloth shifts. Brushes against skin. So soft.

Hands are hidden in sleeves. He turns hands. Brushes fingers against cloth. Cloth catches on callouses. Soft against palms. He looks down. Black patterns, like water. Fingers itch.

Fili turns away. Searching in pack. He should stay still. Wait. But Fili is not looking. He reaches up, lets sleeve fall back. Touches black patterns. They are ridges under fingers. Twisting, twining. He stares. Touches patterns.

Fili stands up. He lets arm fall, drops head. Thinks about patterns. He can still feel ridges under fingers. Fingers twitch. Hidden by sleeves. It is good, big shirt. He is hidden.

Fili turns back. Holding rope. Ties rope around waist. Speaks. Nods.

He keeps head down. What now? He is wearing shirt. Wearing trousers. It is better. So much better.

Fili makes noise. Angry noise. He braces himself. But Fili’s face is not angry. Not pleased, but not angry. Fili reaches down. Rolls sleeve of shirt. Rolls until hand is free. Then other sleeve. Hands are free now. Not hidden. Fili stands back. Nods.

He stands still. Keeps head down. Thinks about patterns. Ridges under fingers. Cannot brush fingers against cloth now. But remembers how it felt. Keeps head down.

And then: door opens. Big Man comes back. Little Snaga does not come. Maybe Little Snaga is dead. He stares at floor. Hopes Little Snaga is not dead.

Big Man comes. Stands in front of him. Stares. He keeps head down. Does not look. Big Man is angry. He knows this. Does not need to look.

Big Man stares at him. Speaks. Does not speak to him. Speaks to Fili. He is glad. Does not want them to speak to him. Does not understand when they speak. If Little Snaga is dead, who will teach more words? Maybe he will never understand.

He hopes Little Snaga is not dead.

Big Man goes. Stands by fire. Does not speak. Fili does not speak. Does not look at him. It is good. He is not in corner. But in shadow. Fili in front of him. Back turned. No-one looking. No-one talking. It is good.

Door opens. Little Snaga comes in. Not dead. It is good. But not alone: tall man comes in, too. Very tall. Old, white beard. Tall hat. Tall man carries club. Who is tall man? He is Big Man? He has been wrong, tall man is Big Man?

No. Big Man is Big Man. Tall man is only tall.

Tall Man speaks. Speaks to Fili. Pleased. Voice is deep, smooth. Does not rumble with anger like Big Man’s voice. Tall Man is not angry.

Then Tall Man asks question. Fili moves. Now Tall Man can see him. Tall Man looks. Looks and looks. Very tall. Has to bend down, bend low to look. He keeps head down. Looks at floor. But Tall Man does not stop looking. Then speaks. Sounds pleased. He hears word, kili. Only word he knows. He does not know other words. What should he do? Kili means khozd shrakhun. But Fili, Little Snaga say kili, always say kili, but do not make any command. Kili is not same. Not same as khozd shrakhun. What should he do?

He does nothing. Keeps eyes on floor.

Tall Man stands up. Speaks. Speaks to Big Man. Big Man speaks. Little Snaga, Fili. All talking together. Talking with Tall Man. What are they talking about? He listens. Hears orc-word. RKS. Listens. Wants to hear soft sounds. Orks. It is different. But not so different. He hears this word. Once, twice, third time. Does not understand any other words. But listens. Listens hard. What are they talking about?

Orcs. They are talking about orcs.

Big Man is angry. But does nothing. Does not fight Tall Man, does not punish him. Only angry. Tall Man is not scared of Big Man. Not scared of anger. Tall Man is very tall. But old. Big Man is strong, fierce. Tall Man should be scared.

Tall Man fetches chair. Sits down. Sits down in front of him. Staring at him. Head now almost same height. Why? What does Tall Man want?

Do not be afraid, says Tall Man. I will not kill you.

This. Tall Man says this. Says this in orc tongue. Tall Man speaks orc tongue. Understands. He stares. Steps back. Tall Man. Tall Man is not orc. But speaks orc tongue. Sound is wrong, blurry, soft, like river. But orc tongue.

I will not kill you, says Tall Man. It is wrong. But Tall Man is not orc. Yes, yes. Tall Man has learned orc tongue. But does not know well. Does not say words right. Sound is wrong. And does not know proper greeting. Says greeting wrong. Does not know not to say greeting to snaga. He has never been greeted before. But has seen it, many times. Knows right answer.

Not today, he says. It is better, it is better. He knows it is right. He understands. Knows it is right. It makes stomach sick, to be right at last. To understand at last.

Little Snaga speaks. All talk, Little Snaga, Tall Man, Fili, Big Man. All talk in bird-language. Say word again, orks, once, twice. He waits. Listens. Stares at Tall Man. Does Tall Man know other words in orc tongue? Or only greeting? He wants Tall Man to speak orc tongue again. Wants to hear words he understands.

At last, Tall Man looks at him again. We will never kill you, he says. Khozd will never kill you.

He stares. Khozd? What khozd? He looks around. Big Man, Fili, Little Snaga, Tall Man. All watching him. Tall Man says never kill him. He does not understand. It is wrong.

Why? he asks. Wants to understand. Tall Man speaks orc tongue. But -- strange. Sounds strange. Says strange things. And -- khozd?

Tall Man speaks. Not to him. Bird language. He thinks. Listens to bird language. But thinks. Tall Man sounds strange when speaks orc tongue. Does not know right greeting. Does not know not to greet snaga. Maybe -- maybe Tall Man does not speak orc tongue very well. Makes mistakes. Maybe this. Maybe does not mean khozd. Means something else. Maybe does not mean never kill. He hopes Tall Man will speak orc tongue again soon. Wants to find out what Tall Man means.

But no more orc tongue. Door opens. Loud, fast. Giant comes through. Taller than Tall Man, broader than Big Man. Giant is angry. Very angry. He steps back. Into shadows. Into corner. Maybe giant will not see him. Wishes clothes were grey, black. Shirt is blue. Easy to see.

Tall Man stands up. Speaks to giant. Giant is angry with Tall Man. And giant is not alone. More men coming in. Short men. Many. Beards, long hair. All short, shorter than normal men. He presses back into corner. Men have swords, axes. Fierce faces. Men are enemies? Or part of Big Man’s band?

Big Man does not move to fight. Part of band. He feels sourness in stomach. He did not know, so many in band. Fierce faces, swords, axes. He thought only Fili and Little Snaga. Thought it was better. Better only two. But he was wrong. First Big Man, then Tall Man, now giant and many others. Band is big. It is not good.

Giant is angry. Speaks angry words to Tall Man. Tall Man is not afraid. But giant looks. Looks around. He makes himself small. But giant sees him. Blue shirt, maybe. Shirt is soft, colour is deep, like night sky before dawn. But snaga should not have shirt like this.

Giant speaks. Angry words. Heart beats fast, loud. Sweat on back of neck. But Big Man. Big Man steps between him and giant. Speaks. Angry too. Giant and Big Man angry with each other. Giant is so tall, so broad. Big Man cannot beat giant. But is not scared of giant.

Other men are quiet now. Watching to see if Big Man will fight giant. But Tall Man speaks. Takes giant’s arm. Leads giant away. Outside. Giant is angry. But does not stay. Does not fight Big Man.

Tall Man is gone now. No more orc words.

Other men start talking. Come forward. Talking, talking, loud, fast. Bird language only. Other men do not speak orc tongue. But Big Man shouts. Angry. Other men grow quiet. Big Man speaks. He hears two words: orks, kili. Does not understand other words. Men murmur, then are quiet. Big Man stop speaking. Then one man steps forward. Dark-haired man, strange hat. Man bows. Speaks. Yes, men are part of Big Man’s band.

Big Man turns away. Speaks.

Men fall silent. But stare. Stare at him. He is in corner, in shadow. Keeps head down. But men stare. He slips down. Crouches. Smaller. Harder to see. Wishes shirt was not blue. Blue is blue of night sky before dawn. Deep. Soft. It is not snaga shirt.

Men stare. But then Fili goes forward. Speaks. Voice quiet. Men listen. Then turn away. Still look. But not staring, now. Look for short time only. Here and there. Now and then. Pretending not to look. He knows this. Knows this well. They are not good. Do not know how to look without being seen. He sees them. Even with head down, sees them looking. But they do not stare. It is better.

Men are quiet. Speak in low voices. Do not come close. He crouches in shadows. Wall at back. Wall to right, to left. Men are watching him. But not staring. Only look sometimes. He is watching, too. Watching men. He knows how to watch without being seen. Watches men.

Men are strange. Short. Shorter than normal men. Fili is short, too. Big Man is short. Little Snaga is very short. But he is different. Sorceror. Tiny man. Other men are not same. Broad like men, but too short. he has seen short men before, but not so many, not so broad. He counts. Ten men, and Fili, and Big Man. Tall Man, Giant, Little Snaga. So many. Small band is better. Four, five. Fifteen is not good. Was it wrong? Did he make wrong choice, to let Fili steal him?

Maybe.

Little Snaga comes, sits by him. Talks. He does not understand words. He stays silent, watching men. Little Snaga talks like rushing river. Never stops talking. He understands nothing. Wishes Little Snaga would stop. Teach him words, or stop. Little Snaga knows he does not understand. Talks anyway. Talks and talks. Why?

At last, Little Snaga goes away. Good. It is not easy, try to listen for words and watch men, both together. He tries to learn differences between men. Important. Each man will be different. Want different things. Get angry for different reasons. Like different punishments. It is not easy, recognise all men. Fili he knows. Yellow Hair. Beads in moustache. Big Man he knows. Angry. Dark hair. Sharp eyes. Others not so easy. One with strange hat. One with red hair. One with axe in forehead. Young one. Old one. Fat one. So many.

Men do not come to look at him. Stay on other side of room. Look only here and there, now and then. Talk to each other. Strange Hat talks to Little Snaga. Men are fierce. But not angry. Not yet.

He thinks. Thinks and thinks. Why are all men so short? Tall Man is so different. Other men are all short, broad. Fili is same height as him. Maybe little more. It is strange. He has known it is strange since first saw Fili. Men are usually taller. But some men are short. He knows this. Not so strange, maybe. But this. Twelve men, all short. Same height as Fili, or only little taller. Same height as him. He has never seen this. Never seen so many short men. And short men are usually thin. These men are broad. Broad like tall men, but short.

Maybe they are not men.

He thinks. Little Snaga looks like tiny man. But is not man. He knows this. Does not know what Little Snaga is. But not man. Other men -- maybe also not men? Different from Little Snaga. Taller. Broader. Much broader. Thick arms. Big noses. Hair. Not like Little Snaga. But not like men, either. Are they men? Maybe. Maybe not.

Tall Man, Giant come back. Giant strides across room. Heading for him. He stands. Heart beats faster. Can he run? He is in corner. Nowhere to run to. He keeps head down. Waits.

Fili stands in front of him. Between him and Giant. He frowns, glances up. Fili is strong, fierce, killed five orcs. But Fili is small. Giant towers over him. Fili is strong, but cannot beat Giant. Why does he step in way? Giant does not want Fili. Did not come to fight Fili. Came for him. Came straight for him.

Why does Fili step in way?

Giant speaks; angry words. Fili replies. Also angry. Angry with Giant. Stomach aches with fear. Will Giant kill Fili? He does not understand Fili. But knows Fili’s name. Only knows Fili’s name. Fifteen in band, only knows Fili’s name. Why did Fili step in way?

Tall Man speaks. Tall Man’s voice is smooth, deep. Bird language, but not like bird. Tall Man is not angry. Tall Man speaks, and Fili steps aside.

Good. It is good, Giant not fight Fili. But now Giant comes forward, kneels in front of him. He stares at ground. Hands are sweating. Giant wanted him. Fili did not want Giant to have him. But now Fili has given him to Giant. Yes. He understands.

Giant does not reach for him. Does not grab, does not touch. Only kneels. Stares. Speaks.

He stares at ground. Giant’s hand passes across his gaze. Shackle at wrist. He stares. How can Giant have shackle? Giant is snaga?

No. Giant cannot be snaga. Giant is sure, confident. Speaks angry words. Anger to Big Man, to Fili. Giant is not snaga. But Giant has shackle. Where did shackle come from, if not snaga? Orcish metal. He knows this. Orcs gave Giant shackle. But Giant is not snaga now.

No. It is not right. Snaga is snaga. Giant has shackle, must be snaga.

Giant stands up. Speaks. Speaks to Tall Man. Walks away. Tall Man nods. Fili comes forward. Takes his arm. Pulls him away from corner.

He follows.

----

Fili takes him outside. Big Man, Little Snaga, Tall Man come too. Other men stay. Watch as he passes. Smiling. Bowing to Big Man. He keeps eyes down.

Outside, Fili makes him sit on bench. He sits. Waits. Will Tall Man speak orc tongue again? He waits. Wonders.

Tall Man speaks. Bird-language. But says kili. Asks question. Talking to him. Talking to him. Can he talk back? He does not understand question. But Tall Man understands orc tongue.

You will never kill me, he says. This is what Tall Man said to him. It is not right. Tall Man has misunderstood. I am snaga, he says. Why will you never kill me?

He waits. But Fili speaks. Bird-language. Speaks to Tall Man. Why does Fili speak? Tall Man should speak. Tall Man speaks orc tongue.

Tall Man speaks. But bird-language. Stomach sinks in disappointment. No more orc tongue. Maybe Tall Man does not know any more words. But then Tall Man turns to him. Is silent for moment. And then.

You belong to khozd, Tall Man says. Khozd do not want you to die. They do not want you to hurt. You are not snaga. You are khozd. Khozd are your band. Fili is your litter-mate. He does not want you to die. He will not hurt you. He does not want you to hurt.

He looks at Fili. Back at Tall Man. Fili is not his litter-mate. He has no litter-mates. He has no litter. And -- khozd?

Tall Man does not understand own words. Maybe.

No, he says. I am snaga. Tall Man has misunderstood. Misunderstood orc tongue, or misunderstood him. He is snaga. He has no litter-mates. He has no band. None care if he dies.

Tall Man sighs. Speaks to Fili. Fili speaks back. Not pleased. Stares at him. What does Fili want? He is snaga. What should he tell Tall Man to tell Fili?

Fili speaks again. Longer now. Speaks to Tall Man, but stares at him. Eyes too big. Frightened, maybe.

Tall Man turns to him. Fili knew you before you were in world, he says. He will know you after you leave it. He--

He stops. Turns to Fili. Speaks. Why did he stop? Maybe does not know word. Does not know how to say what Fili wants. Words make no sense. Orc tongue, but he does not understand. He saw Fili first time only days ago. Fili does not know him.

Fili stands up. Speaks. Angry now. Loud. He waits. Waits for Tall Man to tell him what Fili said. But Tall Man does not speak. Fili kneels in front of him. Grabs his hands. Stares at him. Kili, kili, he says. Then more words. Only few words. He does not know them. Fili stares. Not angry now. Frightened. Crying.

Fili is crying.

He looks at Tall Man. Why is he crying? he asks. Is he weak? He is not weak. He is strong.

Tall Man does not answer him. Speaks to Fili. Fili lets go of his hands. Sits down. Still crying. He has not seen this. Has seen snagas cry. Has seen men cry, yes. Men are weak. But not like this. Men cry when in pain. But Fili is not in pain. Yet he is crying.

Fili killed five orcs. He is not weak.

He does not understand.

Big Man grabs Fili. Big Man will punish Fili for being weak? But Big Man does not do anything. Only holds Fili’s shoulder. Little Snaga sits on ground, next to Fili. He stares at them. Tries to understand. Fili said he knew him. Said he is his litter-mate. But he is not Fili’s litter-mate. He has no litter. Fili does not know him.

And then: he understands. Fili thinks he is someone else.

Yes, yes. This is why Fili has not punished him. Why Tall Man says Fili will never kill him. Why Fili stood between him and Giant. Fili thinks he is someone else. Litter-mate. He does not understand why Fili cares about litter-mate. But he understands better, now. Fili thinks he is someone else.

He crouches in front of Fili. Wants Fili to understand. I have no litter, he says. I was not born. Orcs made me from foul dirt and poisoned blood. I am snaga. I have always been snaga.

Tall Man speaks in bird-language. He hopes translation is right. Hopes Tall Man has understood him.

Kili, Fili says. Fili is still crying. Still frightened. And he understands, at last. Kili is name. Name of Fili’s litter-mate. It does not mean khozd shrakhun. It is name. Someone else’s name.

Do not cry, he says. I am not Kili. I am not your litter-mate.

Tall Man speaks. Fili cries more, harder. Speaks, broken voice.

And Tall Man speaks. Fili is khozd, he says. Fili is khozd, Thorin is khozd. He points at Big Man. Thorin is khozd.

Khozd woman birthed Fili, he says. She is mother. This word is bird-language, mother, though Tall Man says it with strong hard sounds, like orc tongue. Same khozd woman birthed another child, Tall Man says. Two children, same mother. Other child is Fili’s brother. Two children, same mother, children are brothers. Child’s name is Kili.

He listens. Wants to learn bird-language words. But does not understand why words are important. Yes. Fili has litter-mate. He is not Fili’s litter-mate. Woman who birthed Fili is not important. Why does Tall Man tell him this?

Among khozd, mother is important, Tall Man says. Brother is important. Khozd does not want brother to die. Does not want brother to be in pain. Does not want brother to be afraid. Fili wants this for Kili. Wants Kili to be safe. Not to be frightened.

Twenty-five years ago, orcs came to Fili’s home, says Tall Man. Orcs stole Kili away. Fili thought Kili was dead. But Kili was not dead. Kili was with orcs. Orcs made Kili snaga. And then Fili and Bilbo found Kili. Killed orcs, brought Kili back. But Kili does not remember. Orcs have hurt Kili. This is why Fili cries. Because Kili is his brother, and he does not want his brother to be in pain. Does not want him to be frightened. This is why he cries.

Tall Man stops speaking. Words, so many words. Some make sense. Some do not. Khozd. Tall Man says Fili is khozd. Says Big Man is khozd. But khozd means snaga, means low, means filthy. Fili is not khozd. Big Man is not khozd. But they are something. They are not men. They are something.

And brother. This word. It means litter-mate. But litter-mate is important to Fili. Fili does not want litter-mate to be frightened.

And Fili thinks litter-mate is him.

He does not believe it. How can Fili think litter-mate is him? He is snaga, has always been snaga. He has never not been frightened, never not been in pain. It is not possible. Fili cries for nothing. Stupid, to cry for thing that cannot happen. Cry all day, if cry for pain, for fear. Fili does not want litter-mate to die. Also stupid. If orcs took litter-mate, litter-mate is better dead. Cannot want litter-mate not in pain, not frightened, yet also not dead. It is stupid.

Litter-mate is probably dead. If orcs took litter-mate, litter-mate is probably dead. It is better. No pain, no fear. Unless after death is worse.

No. After death cannot be worse.

Tall Man, Big Man are talking. He waits until silence, then speaks. What happens to Fili’s kind after death? he asks.

Tall Man translates. Big Man replies.

They go to house where Mahal lives, Tall Man says. Mahal is one who made khozd. All khozd who have died are there already.

It is good, this house? he asks.

Tall Man translates. Big Man replies.

No-one is afraid of it, Tall Man says.

He nods. It is good. After death is better, for Fili, at least. He does not know what happens to snagas after death. Hopes for nothing at all.

He stands up. It is good place, he says. No-one is afraid. If you want litter-mate -- brother -- to not be afraid, should hope he is dead. It is good, he is dead. To be alive is to be in pain, afraid. Life is not good. Not good for your litter-mate, not good for your most hated enemy.

Tall Man does not speak. Does not look pleased. Perhaps hoped that Fili’s litter-mate was alive. Then speaks. Talks with Fili. Fili replies. Tall Man speaks again.

Fili groans. Sounds like he is in pain. Hides head in hands. But he is not hurt. No-one has touched him. Only spoken. He is crying. Weak. Crying not for own pain. Crying for litter-mate’s pain. Because if litter-mate is alive, he is in pain, afraid.

Big Man stands up. Speaks. Walks away. Angry. But Fili is not angry. Only weeping, like he is in pain. But not in pain. Only weeping because litter-mate is in pain.

He does not understand this. Why is litter-mate’s pain so important? Does not understand. But it is important. He sees this. Wants to tell Fili that litter-mate is almost certainly dead. Twenty-five years is long, long time. No snaga lives this long. Litter-mate is dead. Gone to Mahal’s house. But Tall Man said Fili does not want litter-mate to be dead. So he does not speak.

Little Snaga takes his arm. Leads him back to house. Tall Man comes, too. Fili stays behind. Weeping in darkness. Crying for litter-mate. For brother.

Little Snaga asks Tall Man question. Khozd shrakhun, he says. Other words, too.

Tall Man answers. Few words. One word is dwarf.

And -- yes. Yes. He understands. Dwarf. Dwarf is Fili. Fili and Big Man and men inside. They are not men. Not khozd -- they are fierce, proud, they are not khozd. But they are not men. He understands. He understands.

They are dwarf.

Chapter Text

Inside, dwarf are eating. All sitting at long table. Table is covered in food. Dwarf are talking, laughing. Loud.

Stop talking when he comes in.

He stares at floor. Little Snaga has hold of arm. It is good. Little Snaga is claiming him. Big Man -- Big Dwarf -- is outside. But he does not know if it is same. Everything is different here, with Fili, with Little Snaga. With Dwarf. He has soft clothes, blue shirt. He is clean. Everything is different. He does not know rules. Does not know if other dwarf can touch him when Big Dwarf does not give permission. But Little Snaga has arm, has claim. He hopes it is enough.

Little Snaga pushes him forwards. Not towards table: past table. He breathes deep. Past table is past dwarf. Only few steps, then he will be past dwarf.

Bald dwarf stands up. Stands in way. He stops walking. Stares at floor. Bald Dwarf is tall. Not tall like Tall Man, or like Giant, but still tall. Broad in chest, shoulders. Very strong. Bald Dwarf is dangerous.

Bald Dwarf speaks. Voice is low, rough. Angry? He is not sure. Bird language, but bird words sound strange. Not fluting like when Little Snaga speaks. Strange, rough, like waves washing over gravel. Who is Bald Dwarf speaking to? Staring at him. Speaking to him? No. Why would Bald Dwarf speak to him? He does not understand words. Speaking to Little Snaga. Yes.

Little Snaga makes noise. Bald Dwarf speaks again. Sits down. Little Snaga pushes him. He goes forwards. One step. Two steps. Five. Six. And then Bald Dwarf is behind him. All dwarf are behind him. Breath comes more easily in lungs. But dwarf are still staring. He can feel them staring. Why do they stare at him?

He does not know.

Little Snaga takes him to corner. Goes away. It is good. Corner is dark. Far away from dwarf. He sits. Wall at back. Wall to left, to right. He watches dwarf. Dwarf are talking now. Not staring. Look only now and then. He watches.

Little Snaga comes back. Frowns at him. Talks. Points. He does not understand words, understand pointing. He looks at Little Snaga. Looks at dwarf. He does not want to look at Little Snaga. Wants to keep eyes on dwarf. But Little Snaga is talking. Pointing. He listens. But no words he knows. He does not understand. He wants to do what Little Snaga says. But he does not understand. Cannot even say he does not understand. Can only stare.

Little Snaga hits him on knee. Warm, weak. Something in chest loosens. Little Snaga is not angry. He does not understand what he should do, but Little Snaga is not angry. This is what hit means: it means not angry.

Little Snaga goes away. Leaves him alone in corner. It is good, be alone. Little Snaga goes to table. He hopes Little Snaga stays there long time. Maybe he can be alone in corner. No-one looking, no-one talking. Hopes.

He watches dwarf. Ten dwarf. Bald dwarf is most dangerous. Tall, broad. Tattoos on head. Scars. Most dangerous. He looks at other dwarf. All are dangerous. But some worse than others. He looks from one to other. Axe-head dwarf. Axe-head dwarf is broad. Big arms. Axe is orc axe. Axe-head dwarf very strong, orc axe in head, still living. Axe-head dwarf is next most dangerous.

Then who? He looks at other dwarf. Some old. Old dwarf less dangerous. One young, small. This one also less dangerous. Next is red-haired dwarf. Thick beard, broad chest, loud voice. This one next most dangerous.

Bald Dwarf stands up. He drops eyes to floor. Bald Dwarf is talking to Little Snaga. Both standing up. Then Bald Dwarf turns. Starts walking. Carrying tray. Walking towards corner. Towards him.

He makes himself small. Bows head, deep as can. Presses palms of hands to knees. Eyes on floor.

Bald Dwarf stops. Does not come to him. Does not grab. Too far away to grab still. Only sits on floor. Puts down tray. Speaks. Voice is deep. Growling. But -- not angry. Growl is not angry growl. It is strange. He has not heard growl like this before. Talking to him? But he does not understand words. Why did Bald Dwarf come to sit near him? It is strange.

Tray. Tray is full of food. Food for Bald Dwarf? Why bring food here? Why not eat at table, with other dwarf? Food is for him?

No. No, food is not for him. He has had food. Bread, sunlight paste. Food already today. Food yesterday. Food day before. He has had food.

Tray is full of food. Soup. Bread. Fruit. Other things. He is not sure what all things are. But food. All are food.

Bread has yellow paste on it. Sunlight paste. He stares at bread. Mouth is full of saliva. Remembers how paste tasted. Light, golden on tongue. He stares.

But no. Food is not for him.

Bald Dwarf speaks. Stands up. Walks away. Stomach unknots itself. Why did Bald Dwarf come here? Did not do anything. Only left tray. Why did Bald Dwarf come here, bring food, leave food behind? He came only to bring food?

No. It is stupid. But he cannot think of any other reason.

Little Snaga pushes tray close to him. Takes some plates off tray. Points at tray, at plates. Points at him. He should also take plates of tray? Maybe. But he does not. Little Snaga stops taking plates off tray. Picks up cup from tray. Points. Tray has two cups. Little Snaga points at other cup. Speaks. Points at him.

Yes, he understands this. He should pick up other cup. Cup is steaming. Like cup from before. Boiling water. He should drink? Mouth is still sore from before. But Little Snaga said short-sharp word before. It means he was wrong. Wrong to drink. He watches Little Snaga. Should he pick up cup?

Little Snaga stares at him. Blows on cup. Stares. Speaks.

He frowns. Understands. He is supposed to blow on boiling water. Wait for it to cool. Not drink until it is cool. It was this before as well? This is why Little Snaga said short-sharp word? He picks up cup. Blows. Watches Little Snaga. Waits.

Little Snaga blows on cup. Blows and blows. At last, drinks from cup. He watches. Takes drink as well. Water is hot, but not boiling. Does not burn mouth. Water is bitter. Not cool and clean, like water in cave, in forest. But warm. Feels warm in stomach. Yes. He understands. Drink hot water, feel warm. He understands.

And something else. Before. He thinks about before. He burned mouth. Drank hot water, burned mouth. Thought it was punishment. But Little Snaga said short-sharp word. Gave him water to drink, but said short-sharp word when he drank. It is because of this? Because he should have waited until water was cool? Because of this?

Maybe.

Maybe it was not punishment. Maybe only he was wrong, should have waited. Water is bitter, tastes bad, but warm in stomach. It is so easy, make stomach warm, make chest warm. Hot water only. He had not realised before. He understands. Understands why drink hot water. And -- maybe understands why short-sharp word. Maybe it was not punishment. Little Snaga has never punished him.

Never punish, that is what Tall Man said.

But why?

Little Snaga points at tray. At dishes. Makes gesture, like eating. Points at him. Points at tray. Speaks.

He stares. Stares at Little Snaga. Stares at food. There is so much food. Soup, bread, fruit. Other things. White liquid in little cup. Round yellow thing -- more bread? So many things. He has never seen so much food. But food is not for him. Cannot be for him. Food already today. Food yesterday. Food day before. So much food.

Little Snaga points. Points and points. Makes eating gesture. He frowns. It is clear: he should eat. But he does not understand. Why so much food? He does not understand. But bread is near hand. Bread with yellow paste. He remembers how it tasted. Picks up bread. Watches Little Snaga. Little Snaga nods. Smiles. Stomach aches in anticipation. He brings bread to mouth. Watches Little Snaga.

Little Snaga only nods. No short-sharp word. It is right: he should eat.

He should eat.

He bites down. Sunlight on tongue. Golden, sweet. Stomach hurts. He swallows. Stares at food. So much food. Stomach is turning over. Sight of so much food makes stomach ache. He has been hungry before, often hungry. Today, yesterday, not hungry. Bread today, meat yesterday. And yet. He stares at food. Stares and stares.

He has never been so hungry.

He eats. Bread and yellow paste, eats. Three bites and then: what if Little Snaga changes mind? What if dwarf change mind?

He eats faster.

Sunlight on tongue. He will eat this first. Bread first. If dwarf change mind, take food, he will have eaten bread and yellow paste already. He stares at dwarf. They are sitting. Talking. Laughing. They do not look at him. He stares. Takes next piece of bread. They do not look at him.

Little Snaga sits beside him. Stares at nothing. Does not talk. He watches Little Snaga from side of eyes. Watches dwarf from front of eyes. Second piece of bread. Third. Sunlight on tongue. Warmth in stomach. He watches.

Then bread is gone. He stares at food. What now? Soup. He knows soup. Lifts bowl. Drinks soup. Soup is warm. Tastes -- tastes different. Not like soup. Warm. Thick. Not greasy. Not burned. No gristle. No -- no meat.

No meat.

He frowns at soup. Did not know could have soup, no meat. Little Snaga looks at him. Asks question. He does not know words. But does not want Little Snaga to change mind. He drinks soup.

Soup tastes good.

Then: fruit. Fruit is good. No worms, no rot. Apples, pears, berries. He watches dwarf, but dwarf do not look at him. Do not change mind. He watches.

Little Snaga speaks. He looks at Little Snaga. Does not understand words. Little Snaga shrugs. Points at food. He turns back. Eats.

And then: nothing left except yellow round things. Bread? He is not sure. Picks one up. Feels like bread, but sticky. He takes bite.

It is not bread.

He sits, frozen. It is like sunlight paste. But like bread. Feels like bread, tastes like sunlight. Soft in mouth, heavy, sticky. Sweet, so sweet. He chews. Not-bread has something baked into it. Little round things. Burst between teeth, on tongue. Berries. They are berries. Fat, ripe. Purple and red on tongue. Mix with sunlight-taste, burst among smooth, soft not-bread. He has never, never. Never even imagined food like this.

He does not understand this. Dwarf give him this. Give him blue shirt, shirt with patterns, so soft. Give him bread with sunlight-paste. Give him this, this food, he does not know word for this food. Because -- because--

--because they think he is someone else.

Yes. This is why. Because Fili thinks he is litter-mate. He has told Fili. Has told Big Dwarf, told Little Snaga. But they do not believe him. This is why they give these things. He could. He could say. Say he was litter-mate. They think he is litter-mate. He could say he is. Say it, get more food. More water. He could say this.

No. He cannot say this. They will know. One day, they will know he is not litter-mate. He is snaga. They will see Big Orc’s mark. Or only watch him, see he is snaga. See weakness in his heart. See he is not like them. They will know, and they will be angry. Will be so angry if he has told them he is litter-mate. Will know he lied.

They will be angry anyway.

He swallows last mouthful of food. It is not-bread, soft and sweet, but tastes sour in mouth. When dwarf understand he is not litter-mate, they will be angry. Angry to have given him so much food, given him blue shirt. Fili will be angry.

Little Snaga speaks. Picks up tray. Walks away. He stares after Little Snaga. Something is left behind. Something was under lip of tray, hidden.

It is knife.

He stares at knife. It is long, but not sharp. Food knife only. But it is knife. Even blunt knife can kill. He has seen orc cut off head with blunt knife. Takes long time. But still kill.

He stares at knife. Imagines what it is like, to have knife. Imagines holding knife in hand. Handle solid in grip. Blade held out. He could--

No. It is stupid. When dwarf realise he is not litter-mate, knife will not help. Band is fifteen, swords, axes. He is snaga, cannot have knife. He should-- He should--

Knife is gone.

Knife is in sleeve. Feels it there. Cold against skin. End of knife is tucked into manacle.

He took knife.

Heart is beating too fast. He took knife. He took knife. He should put knife back. Put back before Little Snaga comes back. Before dwarf notice knife is gone. He should not have taken knife. He reaches into sleeve.

Little Snaga comes back.

He bows head. Stares at floor. Hands on knees. He feels knife in sleeve. Heart is too fast, too fast. He thinks Little Snaga will hear it. He should have put knife back. Should have put back.

Too late now.

Little Snaga stands, looks at floor. Looks around. Makes angry noise. Leaves.

Knife. Little Snaga was looking for knife.

He swallows. Stomach is too full. Too much food. Stomach hurts. Churns with sickness. Knife presses against arm. Knife. Knife. Knife.

Cannot put knife back now. Little Snaga looked for knife, did not see knife. Little Snaga will know, if he puts knife back. Will know knife was not there before. What can he do?

Cannot do anything.

Little Snaga does not come back. Sits at table. Eating. Fili, Big Dwarf still outside. Giant goes out, too. Other dwarf, Tall Man laying out beds on floor. No-one looks at him. They do not know he has knife. Maybe he can put knife back later. Later, when dwarf are sleeping.

He sits. Sits in corner. Watches. Thinks. Knife is solid against arm. He thinks about what it is like, to have knife. To hold knife. He has held knife before, for cooking, for mending and fixing. But never without orc watching. Now he has knife. No-one knows he has knife. He could -- he could kill. Could cut off head, if lots of time. He tries to imagine. Imagine if Big Dwarf comes. If Big Dwarf realises he is not litter-mate. Big Dwarf, coming towards him. Angry. Could he kill Big Dwarf? He tries to imagine.

Cannot imagine.

He watches. Watches Little Snaga. Watches dwarf. Bald Dwarf? No, he could not kill Bald Dwarf. Not Axe-Head Dwarf. Not Red-Hair. Could not kill Fili. But maybe -- maybe Young Dwarf. Young Dwarf is small. Does not look angry. Less fierce than other dwarf. If dwarf realise he is not litter-mate -- maybe he could kill Young Dwarf. Get out that way.

It is stupid. He will not get out. When dwarf realise he is not litter-mate, he will not get out.

Knife is solid against arm. But not useful. Blunt knife, for food only. Not useful. Should put it back. But cannot put it back now.

Knife is solid. He reaches into sleeve. Touches blade.

He has not had knife before.

Little Snaga gets up. Comes towards him. But Strange Hat stops him. Talks. Gives Little Snaga blanket. Little Snaga nods. Starts to walk again. But Fat Dwarf stops him. Gives shirt. Then Young Dwarf, wool shirt. He watches. Keeps head down. Dwarf give Little Snaga clothes. Maybe need mending. Maybe it is work for him. He hopes so. Wants work. If he can show he is good snaga, maybe dwarf not kill when realise he is not litter-mate. Maybe keep. Maybe need snaga. Many dwarf, many clothes to mend, much food to cook, many things to fetch and carry. He can be useful. Can be good snaga.

Little Snaga collects many clothes, many blankets. At last, comes back to corner. Lays down clothes on floor. He watches. Waits. But Little Snaga does not show him clothes. Does not show him what he should do. Only arranges clothes on floor. Makes clothes into oblong shape. Points. Points at him, then at clothes. Speaks. Two short words. But he does not know them.

He stares at Little Snaga. Does not now how to say he does not understand. But Little Snaga knows this. Must know this.

Little Snaga says new word. SLP. Closes eyes, clasps hands, lays head on hands. Says word again. Soft sounds. Sleep.

He knows this gesture. Yes, understands. It is sleep. He should sleep. Dwarf sleep at night. He understands this. Nods. Feels knife in sleeve.

But Little Snaga is not pleased. Frowns. Speaks. Points at clothes on floor. He was wrong. It is not sleep. Little Snaga wants something else. What does Little Snaga want?

Little Snaga makes angry noise. Grabs his arm. He braces himself, but no hit, no kick. Little Snaga only pulls at him. Wants him to go somewhere. He goes with Little Snaga, tries to move where Little Snaga wants him to move. Little Snaga pushes him down onto clothes. Makes him lie down. Wraps blankets around him. Points. Says words again. Sleep. Then turns away. Lies down in blankets next to him. Turns back. Closes eyes.

He lies still. Tries to watch dwarf. But cannot see past Little Snaga. Cannot see door. Blankets are soft, warm, heavy. Food is warm in stomach. Shirt is soft against skin. He feels so warm. So warm.

But he cannot see.

Little Snaga told him to sleep. But Little Snaga made him lie down. He cannot do both. Cannot sleep here. He cannot see. Cannot sleep here, like this. But Little Snaga told him to sleep. Which is better? He should lie down, or he should sleep? Little Snaga made him lie down. But told him sleep. Told him with words, with gestures. He understood this. Told him.

He should sleep.

He crawls out from blankets. Feels cold. But shirt is still soft against skin. He touches blankets, brushes fingertips against them. So soft. But Little Snaga told him to sleep. He goes back to corner. Sits in corner. Dwarf are all asleep now. Sleep is loud. Snoring, mumbling. He watches. Feels knife in sleeve. Thinks about what he could do. Could he kill Young Dwarf? He closes eyes. Tries to imagine it.

Does not imagine killing Young Dwarf. Imagines One-Eye. One-Eye is already dead. But it doesn’t matter. Knife is blunt. He will not kill anyone with knife. But lets himself imagine. One-Eye, choking, knife in throat. Blood in mouth. Eye rolling. He imagines this. He could kill One-Eye.

One-Eye is already dead.

He sleeps.

----

Someone grabs him. He wakes, heart loud in ears, stomach sick, breath caught in throat. Orcs.

But it is not orcs. Orcs are gone. He is not with orcs now. It is not orcs, and it is not grab. It is Little Snaga. Little Snaga putting something on him. Dwarf are still sleeping. Only Little Snaga awake. Little Snaga rubs his arm. Speaks. No words he knows. But not orcs. It is not orcs.

He sits back. Breath comes easier. But stomach is still sick. Hands are shaking. He hides hands. Stares. What is Little Snaga doing? He was not supposed to sleep? Little Snaga told him sleep. He is sure. He understood this. Was it wrong?

Little Snaga picks up blanket from pile of clothes on floor. Puts it on him, on chest, on shoulders. Wraps it around him. Tucks it behind back. He watches. What is Little Snaga doing? Should he do something? But Little Snaga does not speak. Does not give order. Does not point, does not show him anything. Only picks up clothes, one by one. Wraps them round him. Is Little Snaga trying to bind him? No. Little Snaga knows how to bind him. Has bound him before. Little Snaga is -- Is --

Little Snaga is giving him blankets.

He sits. Watches. Moves when Little Snaga pulls at him. Little Snaga wraps blankets round him, clothes. Tucks some behind back, between back and wall. Some behind head. Keeps working until clothes, blankets are all gone. Then nods. Speaks. Turns away. Lies down. Falls asleep.

He stares. Little Snaga is asleep. Snoring. Little Snaga did not want anything. Only wanted to wrap blankets. Little Snaga is strange.

He is warm. He sits. Thinks about warmth. Blankets are heavy, warm. Soft between wall and back, wall and head. It is like floating. He can barely feel wall, floor. Only softness of blankets. Like floating.

He watches. Dwarf are all sleeping. Hands are hidden under blankets. He turns hands. Palms point up now. He curls fingers. Fingertips brush against blanket. Blanket is so smooth, so soft. He curls fingers, uncurls. Curls again.

Dwarf are all sleeping. Everyone sleeping. Hands are hidden. He raises hand. Touches pattern on shirt front. He cannot see pattern now. Shirt is under blanket. But can feel ridges under fingers. He traces ridges. Remembers what pattern looked like. Black, winding. Like scars, or water.

It is too much. He does not understand. Food -- so much food. Sunlight-bread. Water. Blankets, so warm. Blue shirt, patterns. All these things. Too many things. One thing would be enough. Enough for memories for many days. But there are so many. His throat aches with it. All this -- all this. Because they think he is litter-mate.

He is not litter-mate. But if he was -- he would have this. He would have this, maybe for days, weeks. If he was litter-mate.

He is not litter-mate. He is snaga. Dwarf do not understand. But they will understand. And when they understand -- what then? He has had all this. Should not have had these things. But he has had them. What then?

He feels knife, solid against arm. Dwarf are all sleeping. Not even one dwarf awake, watching. He cannot kill dwarf with knife, not while dwarf awake. But dwarf are sleeping. All sleeping. He could take knife. Could slit throats. Quiet. If quiet enough, no dwarf wake. Could kill all dwarf. And what then?

Go back to Big Orc. Maybe cut off Big Dwarf’s head, take to Big Orc. Show Big Orc. Maybe punishment not too bad. Maybe it is not too late, after all. Could kill all dwarf, kill Giant and Tall Man, kill Little Snaga.

No. Does not need to kill Little Snaga. Little Snaga is small. Short legs. Cannot catch him. Does not need to kill Little Snaga.

He slips knife from sleeve. Holds knife, hidden under blanket. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow dwarf will realise he is not litter-mate. Maybe tonight, slit throats. Cut off Big Dwarf’s head. He could. He could.

Blankets are so warm.

He wraps knife in cloth. Tucks behind him, between him and wall. Maybe dwarf will not realise tomorrow. Maybe can be litter-mate one more day. Food, water, blankets. Maybe one more day. And if they do realise. If they do realise.

Maybe it is worth it.

Chapter Text

Door wakes him. Door opens, closes. Footsteps. He keeps head down. Hair over face. Looks through hair. Still dark outside. Still night. Dwarf still sleeping. But one dwarf awake. Fili.

Fili walks between sleeping dwarf. Comes towards him. He keeps head down. Pretends to sleep. Maybe Fili is coming for Little Snaga?

No. Fili is coming for him.

Fili stops in front of him. He closes eyes. Keeps breathing slow, even. What does Fili want? Has Fili realised he is not litter-mate? Maybe. Heart speeds up. Beating fast, loud. He keeps breathing slow. Hopes Fili will not hear heart. Will not know he is awake.

Has Fili realised? He keeps body loose, relaxed. But he is ready. Ready for kick. Ready for grab. Thinks about knife. Knife is somewhere in blankets. But knife is blunt. Knife is blunt and Fili is awake, watching him. He cannot surprise Fili. Cannot kill Fili with knife. Knife is no use.

But there is no grab. No kick. Fili only stands. Watches him. Stands, watches. Does not speak. Does not move. Stands. Watches.

He waits. He is ready. He cannot brace himself. Needs to look loose, relaxed. Like he is sleeping. Needs to breathe slowly. But he is ready. Ready to brace himself when Fili moves. Hopes he will have time. Maybe not. But at least he is awake. Always worse when punishment comes while still asleep.

But there is no grab. Fili does not move. Only stands. Stands and watches, long, long time. What does Fili want? Why stand so long, watch so long, not wake, not grab, not give order? What is Fili looking at?

Maybe looking at face. Trying to see litter-mate. Maybe this is why Little Snaga cleaned his face. So Fili could look for litter-mate. But he is not litter-mate.

He keeps head down. Hair over face. He is not litter-mate.

Fili stands long time. But does not grab. Does not move closer. Only stands. And then: goes away. Not far. Further than Little Snaga, but closer than other dwarf. He opens eyes. Watches through hair. Fili makes bed on floor. Lies down. Closes eyes. But does not sleep. Breathing is not slow, not even. Thick and ragged, like ill. Shoulders are tense. Not sleeping.

He watches. Waits. Fili lies still long time. Does not sleep long time. But at last, breath slows, grows deeper. Shoulders loosen. Fili sleeps.

He waits. But Fili does not wake up. Waits and waits. Thinks about knife. Fili is asleep. He could -- he could.

Fili does not wake up.

He sleeps.

-----

Next time wakes, sky is deep blue outside window. Deep blue like shirt. Sun is coming.

This time, nothing woke him. Woke up by himself. It is good. Dwarf sleep at night, are awake in day. He should wake now, before sun comes. Be ready when dwarf wake. Ready to be good snaga. Ready for whatever dwarf will do.

Should he do something? With orcs, he would know. Would pack, would mend, would cook. Would know what to do. Always good, to be working when orcs wake. But here he has no work. Has been given nothing. No orders. Does not want to do anything without orders. Does not want to be wrong. It is dangerous, to be wrong.

He sits. Skin itches. Crawls. It is not good, no work, no orders. He wants to stand up, to move about. Wants to twitch, to sigh. But it is not good, to do these things. He sits still. Does nothing. Does not think about crawling skin. Thinks about dwarf. About litter-mate.

Fili did not grab him in night. Did not punish him. Still thinks he is litter-mate. Is it good? He is not sure. While he is still litter-mate, there is food, blankets. Blue shirt. Maybe more water. It is good, to be litter-mate. But longer he is litter-mate, more angry dwarf will be when realise. More food wasted, more water. Punishment is bigger. Longer. Maybe not survive.

But. Maybe. Maybe it is worth it. He thinks. One more hour, blankets. Warm, soft. How much bigger is punishment for one more hour? How much bigger for one more piece of bread with yellow paste? If one hour of punishment for one hour of blankets, is it worth it? If two hours? If -- if death?

No. Not worth death. Cannot risk death. Must stay alive, if can. This is only thing. It is not worth this. He has memories now. Can remember water, food, blankets, sunlight paste. He has these. No-one can take them. He must only keep remembering. Then they will not go away. He has them. It is enough. It is not worth death for more. Must stay alive.

He sits, thinks. How many memories now? Water. Water is first. Cool and clean. He closes eyes. Remembers water. How it tasted. How it felt. Sliding across tongue. Sliding through whole body. Water is first new memory. Best.

What else? Meat. He remembers meat. Not burnt. Not greasy. Warm in stomach, solid. He remembers this.

And -- singing. Yes, yes, singing. He sits very still. Remembers singing, Little Snaga, Fili. He spends long time remembering this. Voices twining together like water, like fire, like star-voices. Does not want to forget. Not forget anything about singing. Not forget this.

He is still remembering singing when noise. He sits up. Opens eyes. What is noise? Dwarf wake up?

No, not dwarf. Little Snaga. Little Snaga wake. Still lying down. Eyes still closed. But breathing different. Awake.

He watches. Waits. He has no work. Nothing to show Little Snaga he is good, is hard-working, is not lazy. What can he do, show Little Snaga he is not lazy? What does Little Snaga like?

Likes him to learn words.

Little Snaga sits up. Looks around. Stands up. Sees him. He waits. Should he look down? No. It is Little Snaga. Little Snaga does not want him to look down. So he does not look down. Watches Little Snaga. Waits.

Little Snaga does not look pleased. But does not look angry. Comes towards him. Sits down by him. Speaks. No words he knows. He needs more words. Little Snaga likes him to learn words. But does no give him any words to learn. If Little Snaga gave him words, he could show he is good, he is working. Working to do what Little Snaga wants. But Little Snaga only speaks, always speaks and speaks but does not use words he knows, does not explain new words. How can he show Little Snaga?

He can show Little Snaga he remembers old words. Yes. He can do this.

He points to Strange Hat. Strange Hat is sleeping. He points. Dwarf, he says. Hopes he is right. He thinks this is what dwarf means. Thinks all short, broad creatures are dwarf. Hopes he is right.

Little Snaga does not look pleased. But nods. Says short word, new word. YS. This word, short, easy. Soft sound is E. Word goes with nod. Means it is right. He hopes it means this.

Yes, he says, yes. Watches Little Snaga. Hopes he is right.

Little Snaga smiles now. Only small smile. But good, good. He is right. He has pleased Little Snaga. New word, useful word. And has pleased Little Snaga. Maybe if he pleases Little Snaga enough, Little Snaga will want to keep him when dwarf realise he is not litter-mate. Maybe.

What else? He is right about Strange Hat. Strange Hat is dwarf. But does not know yet if right about others. He raises hands. Tries to point to all dwarf. Looks at Little Snaga.

Dwarf? he says.

Dwarfs, says Little Snaga. Holds up one finger. Says something. Second word is dwarf. First word too fast, he does not know. Then two fingers. Speaks again. Second word dwarfs.

Yes. He understands. Bird language has different words, one, more than one. Like orc-tongue, but different way to show more than one. Add S. Yes, he understands this.

Dwarfs, he says. Yes.

Yes means it is right. He hopes it can also mean he understands. Does not know how to say it any other way.

Little Snaga laughs, smiles. Pleased now. He has pleased Little Snaga. Good, it is very good. He will learn words. Will learn all words. He watches, listens. Listens so hard ears buzz. Wants to hear new words.

Yes, ther dwarfs, says Little Snaga. Two words, he understands. Almost all words. But not what they mean, all together. Does not know middle word. But he says it. Tries to say right. Sounds are difficult. Hard to make mouth soft. But he says it. Says quietly, knows it is wrong, new word is wrong. Listened hard, but did not hear properly. Little Snaga speaks fast. like rushing river. Hard to hear. And new word -- he does not know what new word means. Ther. What does it mean?

He will find out. But still does not know everything about dwarf. Yes, he is right, all short, broad creatures are dwarf. But what is Little Snaga? Short also, not thin, but not broad. Little, bird-boned. Very short. Not dwarf, he thinks, but maybe he is wrong. Maybe dwarf child? No, Little Snaga does not have child face. Not dwarf. Maybe.

He points at Little Snaga. Ther dwarf? he asks. Does not know what ther is for, but wants to show he has learned it.

Little Snaga frowns. Good. He is right, Little Snaga is not dwarf. Then Little Snaga speaks. Says word, long word. Hard to hear all sounds. He tries to repeat. Does not sound right. Little Snaga frowns. Says short-sharp word. No. This is short-sharp word. No. It means it is wrong. Then new word. Hobbit, says Little Snaga. Hobbit.

Hobbit, he says.

Yes, says Little Snaga. Points at self. Im hobbit, he says.

Good, he is right. Little Snaga is not dwarf. Is hobbit. Good. Hobbit. But now new word: im. What does new word mean? He does not know.

Little Snaga points at him. Yur dwarf, he says. New word: yur. Many new words now. Hobbit, ther, im, yur. What do they mean? Hobbit is Little Snaga -- Little Snaga is Hobbit. Not snaga -- he has known this long time. It is good, have new name for Little Snaga. It feels right. But other words -- what?

He tries to understand. Points at Hobbit. Im hobbit, he says. Points at self. Yur dwarf. Is it right? What is yur? Maybe it means snaga. Maybe yur dwarf means dwarf’s snaga. But then im? And ther? He should understand. Needs to understand, show Hobbit he is working. But he does not understand.

Hobbit frowns. Not pleased. He is wrong, of course. Should not speak, use words he does not understand. Maybe say something bad. Something to make Hobbit angry. He waits. Hopes Hobbit is not angry.

Hobbit speaks. Yur, he says. Points. Points at him. Yur, he says again. Must mean snaga. Yes, must mean this. Then Hobbit speaks again. Yuah, he says. Still pointing. Yuah.

He stares. Are these words? Very short. Do not sound like words. Sound like noises. Like pain noises. But Hobbit is not in pain. Why make noises? Words?

Yuah, says Hobbit. Yuris yuah.

He does not understand. Does not understand. He should not speak. But wants to please Hobbit.

Yuah, he says. Points at self. Yuah?

Hobbit does not look pleased. Shakes head. No, says Hobbit. Points at him. Yu, he says. Yu.

He nods. Points at self. Yu, he says. He understands. Yu is him. Maybe mean snaga, maybe something else. But it is him.

No, Hobbit says. No. And then more words, fast, like river. He does not know these. But he is wrong. No means he is wrong. How is he wrong? Hobbit pointed at him, said yu. How is he wrong? He does not understand. Wants to learn words, but too stupid. Cannot learn this.

Hobbit closes eyes. Sighs. Then opens eyes. Hits him on arm. Breath comes a little easier. Hit. Hit means he is not bad. Means Hobbit is not angry. Hobbit smiles. Hits him again. He uncurls hands from knees. Waits. Watches.

Yuah Kili, says Hobbit. Points at him. Yuah Kili. Then points at self. Im no Kili.

He frowns. Kili is litter-mate’s name. He knows this. Hobbit thinks it is his name. And -- no. He understands no. It means wrong. Means it is wrong. So then -- Hobbit is not Kili. He is Kili. This is what Hobbit says. But then what is yuah? What is im?

Yuah Kili, says Hobbit. Yuah Kili. Im no Kili.

And -- he understands. Maybe. Must say yuah when talking to someone, talking about them. Must say im when talking about self. It is this? But why? It is obvious, talking about self, talking about other person. Why this? Maybe he is wrong. He frowns. Points at self.

Im Kili, he says, but slow, quiet. Maybe he is wrong.

Hobbit smiles. Big smile, nothing of anger in it. Hits him on knee. Yes, says Hobbit. Yes, yes.

Yes, he is right. Then-- No yuah Kili, he says. Points at Hobbit. No shows that words are wrong, are not true. Is it right?

Hobbit nods. Nods fast, hard. So fast, maybe gets headache. He watches. Hopes no headache. Does not want Hobbit to stop nodding. Hobbit is pleased. It is good. He is right. But why this? Why must say special word, talking about self? Bird-language is strange. But why is not important. He must learn.

Yes, he says. No yuah Kili.

Yes, yes, Hobbit says. Then points at self. Am, he says. Am, am.

He frowns. It is word? Very short. Sounds like hunger noise. Means hungry? Maybe? He waits. But Hobbit only smiles. Am, he says. Am, am.

He points. Yuah am? he says. Maybe means hungry.

No, Hobbit says. Then points at him. Ah, he says. Points at self. Am. Points at Fili. Is.

He stares. Does not know these words. Fili is Fili. Is dwarf. Is also is? What does it mean?

Am, says Hobbit again. Points at self. Am.

Am, he repeats, but quietly. Points at Hobbit. Knows he is wrong.

Hobbit frowns. Sighs. Points at self. Im dwarf, he says. Points at him. Yuah dwarf, he says. Points at Fili. Hees dwarf, he says.

He stares. Hobbit is not dwarf. Hobbit said he was not dwarf. But now says he is dwarf. And -- and says he is dwarf, too. But he is not dwarf. He is snaga. Is khozd shrakhun. Is not dwarf.

Im dwarf, Hobbit says again. Yuah dwarf. Hees dwarf.

He stares. Wants to ask. But -- if he is wrong? He has already been wrong. Wrong many times today. Slow to learn words. Does not want to make Hobbit angry.

Im dwarf, Hobbit says.

No. He should ask. Needs to ask.

No yuah dwarf, he says. Points at Hobbit. Hopes he is right. Hopes he understands this, at least.

Hobbit frowns at him. Speaks. Fast, many words. He does not know any words. Tries to listen, but cannot hear edges of words. Cannot repeat. Too fast, like river.

Hobbit stops. Pushes hair behind ears. Says one word. LK. Points at ears. Hobbit eers, he says. Then points at him. Points at his ears. Dwarf eers, he says.

He touches ears. Does not understand. Hobbit pointed at own ears. Said hobbit eers. So eers means ears. But then -- pointed at his ears. Said dwarf eers. But -- no, he does not understand.

Hobbit speaks. No words he understands. Jumps up, goes away. He watches. Touches ears. Maybe he is wrong. Wrong about eers. Or wrong about dwarf. No, he is right about dwarf. Strange Hat is dwarf. Fili is dwarf. Hobbit is not dwarf. He is right. But then -- dwarf eers?

Hobbit comes back. Carrying piece of wood. Holds out wood. He takes. What is wood for? He looks at wood. Thin. Flat. Smooth.

Hobbit makes not-pleased noise. Turns wood over in his hands. Speaks. Other side is flat too, but bright. Silver glass, bright like metal. He looks at it, reaches to touch it.

Other face looks back. Other hand, reaching. Face inside glass. He stares. Pulls hand back. Other hand pulls back, too.

It is him.

He has seen himself before, in water. But not like this. Only when water is very flat, and only in daytime. Even then, face is shadowy, mostly hidden. Still, enough to know. Know it is him in glass. Him looking back. But it is not like in water. He can see face clearly. Like looking at other person. But it is not other person. It is him.

He stares. He looks -- strange. Eyes, nose, mouth. Face is smooth. Clean. Eyes are brown. Not yellow like orc-eyes. Brown. Pupils round, not slitted. He did not know. He does not look how he imagined. Does not look like orc at all.

Hobbit stands behind him. Appears in glass. Waves. He looks from his face to Hobbit’s face. He is more like Hobbit than orc. He touches chin. Hair is there. He knew this, hair on chin. But now he sees: it is beard. Almost. He did not realise.

Hobbit laughs. Points at his ears. Says same word again. Look, this is word. Then dwarf eers.

He turns head. Looks at ears in glass. Ears are large. Round. Not like Hobbit’s ears -- no points. He understands what Hobbit means: he has ears like dwarf. But how can it be?

Maybe he is wrong. He puts down glass. Goes to Fili. Fili is still sleeping, not far away. Looks pale, ill. He does not look at face. Looks at ears. They are large. Round. Fili is short. Like him. He has not known many who are short like him. Even goblins not so short. Only children. But all dwarfs are short. And Fili’s ears are round. Round like his. And--

And he has hair on chin. Almost beard. Almost like dwarfs.

He goes back to glass. Looks at ears again. They are same. Same as Fili’s ears. Too big for man ears, too round for elf or hobbit or -- or orc. But he is not man, he knows this. Is not elf or hobbit or orc. He is snaga. He is khozd shrakhun. How can he be dwarf? Dwarfs are strong, fierce. Walk straight, unafraid. Dwarfs are not snaga, not khozd shrakhun. He cannot be dwarf.

But he looks like dwarf.

He stares at Hobbit. Khozd shrakhun dwarf, he says. Is he right? Is this what Hobbit means when says dwarf eers?

No, Hobbit says. Looks upset. Nervous. No shrakhun, Hobbit says. Orc word sounds strange in Hobbit’s mouth. Faint. Soft. Sounds wrong. Khozd, says Hobbit. Points at him. Dwarf.

He frowns. Not shrakhun, this is what Hobbit said. Not shrakhun. Shrakhun means filthy, means weak, means less than nothing. Anyone can be shrakhun. All snaga are shrakhun. But he is only khozd shrakhun. Only khozd shrakhun he has met. Other snagas are orcs, are men. He is khozd. He knows this. But has never heard khozd without shrakhun. Has not thought. Has not thought that khozd could be without shrakhun. What would it mean, khozd without shrakhun? He has not met any other khozd. Has always thought khozd is snaga made by orcs. Not stolen, not taken from village like man-snaga or beaten in fight like orc-snaga. Snaga who was made to be snaga, who was never anything else. Like him. Khozd.

But.

But Tall Man said khozd many times. Said Fili is khozd. Said khozd have mother, care for litter-mate. He thought Tall Man did not speak well, did not know what khozd was. But maybe -- maybe he does not know what khozd is. Maybe if dwarf is taken, made snaga, he is called khozd.

He looks at glass. Face looks back. Almost-beard. Brown eyes. Round ears. Face is not what he imagined. Thought more like orc. Orcs made him. Why not make face like orc face?

If--

No. He is snaga. Has always been snaga. Always. Khozd shrakhun is khozd shrakhun. There is nothing else. But orcs made him like dwarf. Made him look like dwarf. This is why Fili thinks he is litter-mate. Because he looks like dwarf.

But why? Why did orcs make him like dwarf?

Maybe because dwarfs are strong. Make good snagas. Big Orc was always pleased. Always pleased with how he did not cry out, did not get ill. Because he is khozd shrakhun, Big Orc would say. I have khozd shrakhun snaga. Always pleased. This is why orcs made him like dwarf. This is why.

But.

He looks at Hobbit. Wants to understand. Does not want to be wrong. This is important. Maybe most important thing. He tries to remember what needs to say, if talking about self. About other is yuah. About self is -- is --

Im. About self is im.

Im dwarf, he says. Now can be no doubt. Not talking about khozd, or khozd shrakhun. Talking about him. Yes? he says.

Yes, says Hobbit.

And he knows. Knows now what Hobbit thinks, what Fili thinks. Why they think it. Think he is litter-mate because he looks like dwarf. But he does not know why he looks like dwarf. Surely dwarf can become snaga, like men, like orcs, even elves sometimes. Fili said litter-mate was taken. Surely then litter-mate was snaga before he died. Was -- was litter-mate khozd? But then if--

He presses hands to knees. Makes himself small. Hobbit is standing up now, going towards table. Dwarfs still sleeping. He presses fingertips into knees. Makes fingers go white. Watches Hobbit. Waits.

Hobbit collects food. Goes outside. Dwarfs still sleeping. No-one watching.

He picks up glass. Stares at face. Brown eyes. Round pupils. Beard. Almost.

But under chin is collar. Dark. He touches it. Other self in glass touches too. Metal is rough, hard. Dwarfs do not have collar. Collar is made by orcs. Just like him. He is made by orcs. Looks like dwarf, now he knows this. But Hobbit is wrong. Hobbit does not know, does not understand. He is not khozd. He is khozd shrakhun.

He is khozd shrakhun.

Chapter Text

Hobbit is still outside when dwarfs wake up. Most dwarfs stay far away, other side of house. Eat food. Talk. Laugh. Sometimes look at him. Only glance, then look away. He keeps head down, hair over face. But sees them looking. Big Dwarf is not inside house. But other dwarfs look.

Fili sits closer. But does not look. Stared and stared in night, but now does not look at all. Stares at nothing. Looks ill. Sits on floor. Does not speak.

Old Dwarf comes towards Fili. Carrying plates. Two plates, food. Speaks to Fili. Fili does not speak. Does not look at Old Dwarf. Old Dwarf puts one plate by Fili. Puts hand on Fili’s shoulder. Then turns. Comes towards him.

He makes himself small. Old Dwarf is old, white hair, not tall, not carrying sword. But is still dwarf. Still dangerous.

Old Dwarf kneels in front of him. Stares at him. Speaks. It is question. But he does not understand words. Does not know how to say he does not understand.

Old Dwarf waits. But he cannot answer question. He stares at floor. Hopes Old Dwarf will not be angry.

Old Dwarf puts down plate. Pushes plate towards him. Points at plate. At him. Speaks.

Plate has food. Bread. Yellow paste. White drink. Old Dwarf points at plate. Speaks again. Then stands up. Leaves.

He stares at plate. Old Dwarf is gone now. Left plate here. Food. Food is for him? He does not understand. Already so much food. Food twice yesterday. Food day before. Now food this morning, too? Even Big Orc does not eat so much food. But Old Dwarf pointed at food. Pointed at him. Left food behind.

He watches Old Dwarf. Reaches for plate. Slowly, slowly. Watching Old Dwarf. Old Dwarf is far away now. Talking to Bald Dwarf. He brings plate closer. Picks up bread. But does not eat. If he is wrong -- if he is wrong. Does not want to be too wrong. If pick up is bad, eat is much worse. He waits. Watches Old Dwarf.

At last, Old Dwarf glances at him. Frowns. Makes gesture. Lifting gesture. He lifts bread. Lifts to mouth. Waits. But Old Dwarf does not get angry. Does not come over. Only raises eyebrows. Nods.

He bites into bread. Old Dwarf smiles. Then looks away. Fast, like did not mean to look so long. Maybe dwarfs are not supposed to look at him. He is glad. It is better not to be looked at.

He eats. Eats everything on plate. He is not hungry. Already so much food yesterday. But eats. When dwarfs realise he is not litter-mate, maybe no more food, maybe for days, weeks. He eats.

Hobbit comes back inside. Talks to Fili. He watches. Head down. Watches without being seen. Fili is ill. Does not talk to Hobbit. Hardly looks at Hobbit. Only staring into space. Ill. It is not good. Maybe Big Dwarf will kill Fili. But not yet. Fili is ill, but can still stand. Still walk. Big Dwarf will not kill yet.

Maybe it is better, Big Dwarf kill Fili. One less in band. Smaller band is better. Smaller band or more snagas. One snaga for large band is bad. But Fili thinks he is litter-mate. If Fili dies, maybe dwarfs will not care about litter-mate any more. He does not know why Fili cares about litter-mate at all. Does not understand dwarfs.

Hobbit goes outside. Dwarfs go, too. Not all at same time. Two, then three, then two more. Soon only Fili left. Then Strange Hat and Fat Dwarf come back, take Fili away. Fili is still ill. Does not look at them.

Now it is only him.

He sits. Stares around house. No-one else here. He is alone. No orders, no work, nowhere to go. No-one watching, no-one talking. Nothing happening.

He is alone.

What now? He waits. Can hear dwarfs outside. They do not come in. Should he do something? There is nothing. What can he do? Nothing. Can only sit.

He sits.

He is not hungry. Not thirsty. Only little pain in knee, in mouth, in arm. Blankets are still behind him. Soft. He is-- He does not know word. Is there word for this? Not hungry, not thirsty, not in pain. What is word? Maybe no word. It is not with. Is only without. Probably no word.

He sits. Thinks about not hungry, not thirsty. Without. It is strange. He stretches arms, fingers. Rolls shoulders. Without. Strange. He will try to remember. When hunger is back. When thirst is back. He will try to remember how it felt, to be without. He concentrates. Tries to fix in mind. This is how it feels.

He waits. Listens. Dwarfs are outside. He hears them. Dwarfs are loud. Walk loud, talk loud. It is good. Easy to hear dwarfs coming. Giant, too. Hobbit is quiet. Not so good. But door is heavy. He will hear if Hobbit opens door. Maybe not hear Hobbit, but hear door.

Tall Man. Is Tall Man loud or quiet? He is not sure. Does not know much about Tall Man. Speaks orc-tongue. Old. Tall. Nothing else.

He will watch. Next time Tall Man is near, he will watch. Find out of loud or quiet. Find out what Tall Man is like. It is not good, not to know. But Tall Man will have to open door, as well. He will hear door. No-one can come in without opening door.

He waits. Voices do not come closer. No-one opens door. He is alone. Alone.

He looks down at shirt. Blue. He raises hand. Brushes fingers against it. So soft. Black patterns, like rushing water or scars. He touches them. Feels patterns under his fingers. He traces thread with one finger. Turning. Twisting. Pattern curls around. Comes back to beginning. Does not end. He could trace pattern all day, never see pattern end. He feels it in mind. Weaving, unweaving. Black lines against blue. He follows with fingers, follows with mind. Like scars.

Shirt is not his. It is litter-mate’s. But for now, he can touch it. Now, here. He is here, without. No-one is watching. He can touch shirt. Look at patterns. He will remember. Remember this.

Shirt is litter-mate’s shirt. What would it be like, to have shirt like this? To own shirt? What would it be like, to be litter-mate? If he was litter-mate, shirt would be his. He tries to imagine. He would own shirt. What would it be like?

It is stupid. He is not litter-mate. Snaga cannot own things. Cannot have shirt. But now, here, he wears shirt. He can look at shirt. Touch shirt. It is enough. More than enough. Almost too much.

He thinks about what he knows. How many days now since Fili stole him? He tries to count. Today is fourth day, he thinks. Each day different. Each day he does not know what will happen. He does not know enough. He let Fili steal him without knowing enough. It is not good. But if Fili had not stolen him, he would still be with orcs.

--no.

It is good. It is good. Maybe dwarfs will kill him when realise he is not litter-mate. Certainly punish him. But now it is fourth day. Fourth day, and he is not hungry, not thirsty. No-one is looking at him. He is here. Alone. Sitting. Without. If he was not here, he would be with orcs. He would not be alone. Not without. No, not without, never without.

Yes. Maybe dwarfs will kill him. But maybe if he can understand more, he can show dwarfs. Can be useful. Can be good snaga. If he can only understand dwarfs. What does he know?

He knows: Hobbit is not dwarf. Hobbit has quiet feet, no shoes. But Hobbit is not snaga. Hobbit is sorceror. Is brave. Not scared of Big Dwarf. Not scared of Fili. What else? Hobbit likes it when he learns words. Likes to teach him. Sit for hours, teach him words. He does not know why. But it is good. Easy to please Hobbit. And good to know words.

What else? Hobbit likes to talk. He knows this. And to eat. Hobbit likes to eat and drink. And Hobbit does not punish him.

He knows: Fili is dwarf. Fili thinks he is litter-mate. Cares for litter-mate. He is not litter-mate but Fili thinks he is. Fili is strong. But Fili cried in night. He is not sure. Maybe Fili is weak. Fili is ill now. Maybe he is weak.

He knows: Big Dwarf is angry. Big Dwarf is--

--what? He knows Big Dwarf is something. Tall Man told him something about Big Dwarf. But what? He thinks. But does not remember. Only yesterday, Tall Man told him. Stupid, stupid. Should have listened harder. Should have repeated. Fixed in memory. It is important, all things Tall Man said were important. But now he does not remember. Only knows that Big Dwarf is angry. And Big Dwarf has not punished him. Yet.

And he knows: he has brown eyes. Round ears. Almost beard. He looks like dwarf. He knows this. It is new. Strange. He thinks about himself. Still looks like orc in head. Strange orc, long dark hair. Too short. But yellow eyes, narrow pupils. He has always looked like this in head. But he is not like this. He knows. Brown eyes. Round ears. Dwarf ears.

There. These are all things he knows. Is it enough? No. He needs to know more. Needs to understand. Needs to show dwarfs he can be good snaga. Dwarfs never give him orders. Never give him work. How can he know what dwarfs like? What dwarfs want him to do?

But he knows what Hobbit likes. Hobbit likes it when he learns words. Yes, yes. He knows this. He sits. Thinks about words he knows. Yes. No. Water. Dwarf. One dwarf, two dwarfs. Ork. One ork, two orks. Yes, add -s for more than one. This is not difficult. What else?

Im. Im is for self, yuah is for other. Look -- he does not know what this means, but knows it is word. What else? Eers. And -- something else. Word for sleep. He learned this in night. Hobbit told it to him. What is it? He does not know. Word is gone from mind. Stupid, stupid. He was sitting here. Hobbit pointed at blankets on floor. Said word. What was word? He does not know. He should not forget words. Hobbit will not like it. He thinks. But cannot remember. Word is gone.

Word is gone. But maybe Hobbit will say word again. He will listen. Will listen. Hobbit will not know. Not know he has forgotten word. He does not want Hobbit to be angry. If he pleases Hobbit enough, maybe Hobbit will speak for him when dwarfs understand he is not litter-mate. Hobbit is not afraid of Big Dwarf. Maybe Hobbit will want him as snaga. Or tell Big Dwarf he is good snaga. Maybe.

Or.

He thinks about knife. Knife is still wrapped in blankets. He reaches behind himself. Burrows hand into blankets. Touches handle of knife. Cool. Smooth. He takes hold of handle. Could he kill dwarf? If dwarfs are angry, could he?

No. Knife is blunt, weak. Food knife only. He could not kill. Maybe if sleeping. But there are so many. If one wakes, all will wake. Knife is useless. Worse than useless. If dwarfs find knife, they will be angry. Knife is dangerous. He should not have it. Cannot have it.

He listens. Voices are still far away. No-one is near door. He waits. Voices do not come closer.

Now. Now is only chance.

He stands. Clutches knife. Cautious. But now is only chance. He goes to table. Table is where food is. Knife would be here. If he puts knife back on table, maybe no-one will know. They will find knife. Will not know he took it. Think only they didn’t see it. Maybe if he hides it under plate. They will think it was always there.

Heart is beating too fast. He reaches for plate. But catches foot on something. Bag. Bag on floor. He looks at bag. Bag is open. Inside bag is.

Inside bag is knife.

He stares. This is not food knife. Curved. Long. Not for cutting food. For cutting throat. Stabbing. Killing. He puts food-knife in rope-belt. Stares at knife in bag. What would it be like, to hold knife? He knows now, what it is like. Has held food knife. Blunt, weak. But still, has held it. Knows. Does not know word for feeling. But feeling is strong. Strange. It is good feeling. Frightening feeling. If it is like this, to hold food knife, what would it be like, to hold killing knife? Knife that is only for killing. Knife that could kill dwarf, kill orc, with one thrust. What would it be like?

Voices are far away from door. He reaches down. Touches hilt of knife. Hard. Smooth. He wraps fingers around it. Lifts.

Fear is sharp in belly. But something else. Rich feeling, dark. Knife hilt is strong, smooth. Blade is still in sheath. He stands. Holds knife. Slides back sheath: one inch. Two. Blade is bright, flashing. Like glass Hobbit gave him. Not like orc-blades, dark, rusted. He presses one finger to edge of blade. Light touch only, lightest. Blood wells up, red. Knife is so sharp. So sharp.

Hands tremble. Bleeding hand. Hand holding knife. If he -- if. If he. If, if orc. If dwarf. He could.

He could.

He slides sheath back onto knife. Should put knife back. He knows this. It is not food knife. Killing knife. Only for killing. Knife feels heavy in his hand. Good weight. Like tree at back. Like darkness in corner. He should put knife back.

He does not put knife back.

And then. He wakes up. Like he was sleeping. He wakes up, here. Standing by table. Standing in middle of room. Food knife at belt. Killing knife in hand. If dwarf should come. If dwarf should come in, should see. He is stupid, so stupid, standing in middle of room. If dwarf should see.

He goes back to corner. Almost runs. Almost falls. Knife is in hand. He should have put knife back. But he did not. Knife is still in hand. He presses himself into corner. Wraps food knife in blanket. No-one will see. But other knife, killing knife. He should put back. Or hide. But he cannot let go. Cannot let go of knife. He stares at it in his hand. Sheath is still on. But underneath sheath is bright blade. Too bright to look at. Too sharp to touch. If he draws knife from sheath, looks at blade, what will he see? Will he see orc-eyes looking back?

His eyes are brown. Brown in glass. But maybe. Maybe yellow in knife.

He lets go of knife. Wraps in blanket. Tucks behind his back. Blanket is warm, soft. But he feels knife. Cold, sharp. Feels it at his back. Feels like rock or tree. Solid. Nothing can come. He can see everything. Nothing can come without him seeing it. And knife is so close. So close.

He sits. Dwarfs, Hobbit all outside. Voices do not come closer. He should put knife back. If dwarfs see knife is gone, they will know. Will come for him.

Dwarfs will come for him, but he has knife.

It is stupid, stupid. Knife is killing-knife, but dwarfs are many. He could kill one, maybe two. Two if smaller dwarfs -- Young Dwarf, maybe Strange Hat. Or Hobbit.

No, not -- not Hobbit. No point killing Hobbit. No.

He does not need to kill dwarfs. Dwarfs think he is litter-mate. Fili cares for litter-mate. Dwarfs give litter-mate food, water, blankets. He can have these things. While he is litter-mate, he can have them. But when he is not litter-mate any more--

Knife feels cold and sharp at back.

It is enough. Enough for now. He is here. Alone. Without. Knife at back. No orders. Quiet everywhere. Perhaps he can -- perhaps he can think.

He thinks.

Thinks about good memories. Touches each one with mind. Counts them. Makes sure they are still there. Water. Sunlight-paste. Blankets. Singing. And now this. Killing-knife. Remembers what it is like, to hold killing knife. Imagines if dwarf should come. But dwarf in mind is not like dwarfs in world. Dwarf in mind is taller. No beard. Yellow eyes. He imagines killing dwarf. It is easy, with killing knife. Knife slides into dwarf's throat like it is water. Blood wells up. Black blood. Is dwarf blood black?

He does not know.

He looks at finger. His blood is red. snaga blood. Or -- dwarf blood? If orcs made him like dwarf, maybe made him with dwarf blood. Dwarf eyes are not yellow. Ears are not pointed. Maybe blood is not black.

Dwarf in mind dies silently. Blood is black. Dwarf dies. It is easy.

He waits. No-one comes in. Voices stay far away. And nearby -- nearby is Fili's bag. He knows Fili has knives. Many knives. He has seen them. He could -- maybe he could.

Voices do not come closer.

He reaches for Fili's bag.

----
Hobbit comes back later. Door is loud. But no need for door. He is sitting. Has not moved from corner now for hour. Hobbit eats more food. Goes away. Comes back hour later. More food. Hobbit eats more than anyone. More than dwarfs. More than Giant and Tall Man. Hobbit eats more than anyone he has ever known.

He sits. Waits. Sometimes Hobbit brings him food, bitter water. Hobbit does not stay. Does not talk. Only brings him food, water. He drinks, eats. Watches. Dwarfs come back in. Go back out. Inside it is quiet, dark. No-one stays inside for long.

No-one notices missing knives.

Then, when more than half of day already gone, Hobbit comes back. Takes him by arm. Smiles. Pulls on arm. He stands up. Follows Hobbit. Hobbit takes him outside. Outside, sun is bright, warm. Grass is very green. He did not see this yesterday. Did not notice. Too busy looking at Big Dwarf, at orcs. But it is green. And sun is warm, bright.

Dwarfs are outside. Sitting on grass. Mending, fixing, sharpening. He should do this. He is snaga. But they do not ask him. Do not look at him -- only short glances. And Hobbit does not sit with dwarfs. Hobbit leads him away. Out into green grass. Nearby are trees. Fruit trees, green leaves. Beyond trees, more grass. Then: fence. Fence is tall. Fence goes on and on. Goes in circle, all around house. Circle is very large. Lots of space inside, lots of grass, many trees. But fence goes all round circle. Too tall to climb. One gate only.

Gate is closed.

Hobbit takes him to walk under trees. Where are they going? Nowhere to go. Fence all around. Maybe pick fruit? But still early -- fruit is not ripe yet. And Hobbit does not pick fruit. Only walks under trees. Slow, winding path, like not going anywhere. Why? Where is Hobbit going? What does Hobbit want him to do?

He does not know.

Hobbit picks up leaf. Points. Oke, he says. Points at leaf. Oke.

Oke, he repeats. It is good word. Short. Strong hard sound. Yes, new word. Oke means leaf. Yes, he says.

Hobbit laughs. Yes, he says. Puts down leaf. Hits him on arm. Talks. Many words, like wind in trees. He listens. Hears few words he knows. Dwarfs. Kili. Look -- he does not know what this means, but Hobbit says this often. Points at things. Says look. But different things each time, so look is not thing pointed at. It means here is thing. Maybe.

Hobbit picks up leaf. Points. Look, he says. Ash.

Ash, he says. Does not understand. Leaf is oke, but here leaf is ash. Two words for leaf. But he does not tell Hobbit he does not understand. Does not want Hobbit to know. Hobbit likes it when he learns words. He will listen. Find out what ash means. And cannot tell Hobbit. Does not know words.

Ash, Hobbit says again. Picks up fruit from ground. Appul, he says.

He nods. Appul, he repeats. These words are easy. Appul is fruit. Oke is leaf, appul is fruit. Ash is -- something else.

Hobbit nods Smiles. Speaks. He does not know words. But Hobbit smiles. Is pleased. It is good.

Then, new leaf. Hobbit points at leaf. Appul, he says.

No. It is not good. He does not understand. Oke is leaf, but ash is leaf, but appul is leaf. Appul is fruit, but appul is leaf. He does not understand. He has not understood something. Something important. Hobbit brought him out here to show him this. It is important. But he does not understand it.

Appul, he says. Unsure now. Stares at leaf. Appul, he says again.

Yes, yes, Hobbit says. Smiles. Then points at tree. Appul, he says.

No. It makes no sense. One word for tree, for fruit and leaf? No. He does not understand. Stares at tree. What is--?

Yes. He sees it. In tree is fruit. Fruit is same kind as before. And leaves on tree same. Same as leaf Hobbit holds. Same shape, size, colour. Then -- then one word for one kind. For tree, leaf and fruit. Same word for all. He does not know why. How can he know, if says appul, whether it is tree, leaf or fruit? But he thinks he is right. One word for one kind, tree, leaf and fruit. Then -- then maybe oke is also tree, leaf and fruit, but different kind. Maybe also ash. He does not remember now what leaves were like. Were they different? He does not know. He tries to remember. But did not look closely at leaves. Too late now. But it is something new. He knows oke is kind of leaf, ash is kind of leaf. Does not know which kind. Hopes Hobbit will show him again. But Hobbit only walks without going anywhere. Talks without saying anything he understands. Smiles and point. Look. Look. Look.

Then: Young Dwarf is there. He stops. Stares at ground. Young Dwarf is small. Young. Probably weak. But still dwarf. He keeps head down. Watches without being seen.

Young Dwarf speaks. One word is Kili. He does not know other words. Looks at Hobbit. Looks at him. Did Young Dwarf give order? He does not know. Hopes Hobbit will explain it if Young Dwarf gave order. He does not understand words.

Hobbit speaks. Speaks to Young Dwarf. No words he understands. He waits. Maybe Young Dwarf just wants to talk to Hobbit. Maybe it is nothing to do with him. But Young Dwarf said Kili. It is his name. Litter-mate's name.

Young Dwarf speaks. Looks at him now. Speaks, then waits. What does Young Dwarf wait for? Is it order? He does not know words. Hopes Hobbit will explain if it is order. But Hobbit does not say anything. Only shifts, like nervous. Young Dwarf is nervous, too. Why nervous? He does not know.

Hobbit speaks, but then Young Dwarf lunges. He should stay still, but is not ready. Is not expecting attack from Young Dwarf. He steps back. Makes noise in throat. Did not mean to make noise, but made noise. Only few steps before he realises, stops. Waits. Ready now for Young Dwarf. He will not step back now. But it is too late. Has already stepped back. Already made noise. Too late to avoid Young Dwarf's anger.

But Young Dwarf does not lunge again. Does not seem angry. Hobbit speaks to Young Dwarf. But no-one speaks to him. No-one touches him. Why? He does not understand. He was wrong, tried to escape punishment. But Young Dwarf does not seem to care. Hobbit does not seem to care. Why? Because they think he is litter-mate? Can litter-mate behave this way? But Young Dwarf lunged. Why lunge, if litter-mate can behave this way? Lunge at snaga means want to punish. Lunge at other orc in band means angry, want to fight. What does lunge at litter-mate mean?

He does not know.

Round-Nose appears. Talks to Young Dwarf. He waits. Maybe Round-Nose will punish. But Round-Nose does not look at him. Only talks to Young Dwarf. Young Dwarf talks back. Then both leave. Leave without anything else: no anger, no punishment. Maybe Young Dwarf likes to scare first. Likes to play games. Maybe Young Dwarf likes it when snagas make noise, try to escape. He has known orcs like this. Big Orc likes him to stay still. Likes only small noise, to show he is hurting. Does not like snagas who scream and cry. Not to keep for long, anyway. But he has known other orcs who liked crying. Liked to chase. Maybe Young Dwarf is like this.

But Young Dwarf did not chase him. Young Dwarf went away.

No. He does not understand.

Hobbit speaks to him. No words he knows. He keeps eyes down. Is Hobbit angry? He is not sure. Does not seem pleased. But angry? Maybe. Not sure. Then Hobbit speaks again. But words are different, now. Little sharper. Little clearer. And not in bird-language. Hobbit says not kir. Not kir. And it is not bird-language. Words are not right, but it is orc-tongue.

It is orc-tongue.

He stares at Hobbit. Hobbit speaks orc-tongue? Words are wrong. But he thinks he knows. Thinks he knows what Hobbit wants to say. Same thing Tall Man said before.

He will not kill me, he says, staring at Hobbit. Is it right? It does not make sense. But makes sense. Young Dwarf thinks he is litter-mate. It is same as before. As what Tall Man said. Dwarfs will not kill him. Because they think he is litter-mate.

Hobbit nods. He noh kiryu, he says. It is strange. Words are too soft, and wrong. Even if Hobbit said words right, words would sound wrong in Hobbit's soft mouth. Orc-tongue is not for soft mouths. Orc-tongue slices mouths, makes them bleed.

Hobbit speaks. Bird word. Then: wuh kiryu is kil. Kil.

He stares. What did Hobbit say? Kili? Knows this word already. It is litter-mate's name. He thinks. But Hobbit -- but he thinks Hobbit said it means kill. Maybe litter-mate's name is kill. It is not so strange.

Kili, he says. Not sure. But Hobbit shakes head.

No, he says. Kil. No i at end. Different word. Yes. He understands.

Kil, he says.

Yes, says Hobbit.

Yes, he says. Yes. It is good word. Very useful word. Yes, he is glad to know this word.

Then Hobbit points after Young Dwarf, Round-Nose. Speaks again. Words he does not know. Then: No kil. Then word he does not know.

No kil. Yes. He understand this. Thinks he understands. No kil, he says. Yes. Hobbit was trying to say this in orc-tongue. Young Dwarf will not kill him. He understands.

No kil, says Hobbit, then more words he does not know. Does not seem angry. But not pleased. He was wrong? Maybe.

No kil, he says. Yes?

Yes, says Hobbit. Good, He was not wrong. Young Dwarf will not kill him. Did not punish him. Because of litter-mate. But why lunge? He does not know. Lunge, but not grab. Not punish. Why?

He does not know. But he is still without. Sun is halfway down in sky, and he has been without all day. No hunger. No thirst. No pain. All day, nothing. He does not know why. Does not know why dwarfs care so much about litter-mate. Give litter-mate food, water, blankets, clothes. Litter-mate is weak -- he is weak -- cannot take food, clothes for himself, cannot demand, cannot threaten. They know this. But they give. They give. Why? He cannot think of any reason. No reason why anyone should give without threat, without fear of what will happen if do not give. Dwarfs are so strange.

Hobbit pulls on his arm. Points at tree. Speaks. It is question, though he does not know words. He stares at tree.

Ash?, he says.

Hobbit smiles. Hits his arm. This, he understands. Not why Hobbit wants him to learn. But understands that Hobbit does want this, that Hobbit is pleased. One thing, at least, he understands. One thing he can do. He will do this.

He will do this.

----

Day grows dark. Hobbit takes him back inside. Puts him in corner. Good. Corner is dark, wall at back, wall at each side. Good view of room, of door. And corner is where blankets are. Where knives are.

Dwarfs come inside. Not all at once. Two, three. But soon all are inside. Even Big Dwarf. All stay on other side of room. Even Hobbit goes there. He is alone on his side. He watches dwarfs. Wonders. Why do they do things they do? Some of it, he understands. Most, he does not. They work, but do not give him work. They laugh, but no-one is fighting, no-one is bleeding. They touch each other, hit each other, but do not get angry. They are so strange. But it is not bad. It is strange, difficult. He wants to understand, to know what they will do next. But it is not bad.

Hobbit is talking to Big Dwarf. He watches. Ready to look away if Big Dwarf looks at him. But Big Dwarf only looks at Hobbit. Talks in low voice. Then turns to table. Old Dwarf shouts. All dwarfs come to table. Big Dwarf speaks. Speaks long time. Sometimes Old Dwarf speaks, too. Other dwarfs word here, word there, but mostly Big Dwarf and Old Dwarf. Point at table, here, there. What are they talking about? He does not know. But other dwarfs look at him. Only short look, like all day. But often. Much more often than before. Dwarfs look at him. And Hobbit. Hobbit looks. Looks and looks. Glances only. But so many. Why does Hobbit keep looking? He is still here. Has not moved. Has not done anything. Why keep looking?

Maybe they are talking about him.

No. Why talk about him? He is not interesting. Unless. Unless they know he is not litter-mate. Could they know this?

No. Why talk so much, if know? Why not come, grab him, punish him? If they know -- no, they do not know. Cannot know.

But they will know. They will know, and then -- no more food. No more blankets. He thinks about it. No more blankets. Will they take shirt? Yes, will take. He curls fingers inside sleeve. Touches shirt. Thinks about no more shirt. Stomach aches. He should not have had shirt. Should never have had. Is it better, to have had shirt two days, to know what it is like to have shirt? Or better to not have, to not know? He is not sure. But stomach aches when thinks about no more shirt.

But dwarfs do not know. Do not grab him, take shirt. Only look. And then, talk stops. Dwarfs go, spread out, start working. He watches. Dwarfs are opening packs, rearranging. Sharpening knives. Knives.

Knives.

He feels knives at back. Wrapped in blanket. Dwarfs are looking in packs. They will know. They will find knives are missing. They will know.

He looks at Fili. Only dwarf nearby. Two knives from Fili’s pack. But Fili is staring at nothing. Still ill. Does not look in pack. Does not look at anything. Fili is ill now second evening. Can still walk. But Big Dwarf is not patient. Maybe kill Fili soon. He wants to talk to Fili. To tell him to try harder. Get better fast. But he is snaga. Cannot talk like this. And does not know words.

He sits. Knives at back. He should not have taken knives. So stupid, so stupid. Dwarfs have given him food, water, shirt. Even when dwarfs understand he is not litter-mate, maybe will want him as snaga. Would it be good, to be dwarfs’ snaga? Yes, he thinks it would be good. Dwarfs hit, do not fight. Laugh at strange things. Sing sometimes. Even if snaga, even if punished often, it is better. Even if dwarfs are like orcs, worth it for singing. He hopes. Hopes that dwarfs will want him as snaga.

He should put knives back. Dwarfs will not want him as snaga if know he has taken knives. He sits. Thinks about how knife felt in hand. Killing-knife, sharp, bright inside sheath. He could kill dwarf. One dwarf, at least, before others were ready. He has never killed before. Orcs do not let snagas kill. Like killing too much to waste on snagas. He could. With knife, he could. See if he likes killing. He stares at dwarfs. Tries to imagine.

Hobbit comes. Brings food. Talks to him. He stops imagining. Pays attention to Hobbit. Many words he does not know, Hobbit talking and talking. But Hobbit does not want him to talk back. He understands this now. Hobbit likes to talk. It is enough to listen.

He listens.

It is good. Like listening to little stream. Talk flows on, on. Hobbit likes to talk, so he knows nothing bad is happening while Hobbit is talking. He listens. Understands word here, word there. Mostly nothing. But understand is not important. Only listen is important. Hear stream flowing. Nothing bad happening.

Then: Hobbit picks up white drink. Points. Milk, he says. And then talk is different. Learning words, like in afternoon. He learns many words. Words for bread, and for sweet bread, and for fruit. White drink is milk, bitter water is tea, sunlight-paste is honey.

Honey, he says, two times, three.

Yes, says Hobbit. Smiles wide. Honey. Yes. Hits him on knee. Smiles. More words. And then talking again, like little stream. He sits. Listens. Honey, Hobbit says, in amongst other words. Honey, honey.

Honey, he thinks.

He should put knives back.

----

Dwarfs go to bed. Have not noticed knives are gone. Hobbit wraps blankets around him. He lets Hobbit wrap. Stays sitting in corner, in front of blanket with knives. Waits.

Hobbit lies down. All dwarfs lie down. Soon all are sleeping. Sleep loudly. Easy to tell.

He sits. Stares at dwarfs. Tries to imagine. Now all are sleeping. He has killing-knives. He could kill all before any woke. Could get out. But -- but. Maybe dwarfs will not kill him when find out he is not litter-mate. Maybe only punish. Maybe keep as snaga. He could be good snaga to dwarfs. Maybe if good enough, sometimes give honey.

No. No, not give honey. No, stupid.

But he could be good snaga. And -- and better than orcs. He thinks. He thinks even when not litter-mate, dwarfs would be better than orcs. Would they? Yes. Probably.

He reaches behind himself. Touches handle of killing-knife. It feels smooth. Strong. He tries to imagine killing dwarf. Young Dwarf, maybe, or Round-Nose. Closes eyes. But Young Dwarf has yellow eyes. Round-Nose has grey skin, pointed ears. Blood is black on his hands, his arms.

He will put knives back. Tomorrow, if dwarfs leave him alone in room again, he will put knives back. Will wait. Will hope that dwarfs wants him as snaga. Yes, he will do this.

He closes hand around hilt of killing-knife. It feels strong, solid. Tomorrow he will put it back. But tonight he will hold it. Only tonight.

He sleeps.

Chapter Text

He is cold.

Desert is cold at night. Stretches all around him. Flat, empty. No trees, no rocks. Nothing to put back against. Nothing at back but empty desert. And -- what?

He turns.

Nothing. Just desert. He is alone. Sky is black, no stars. He is alone.

Then: not alone. Laugh. Behind him. Deep, scraping. Big Orc. Knows this laugh. This laugh means Big Orc is bored. Bored is not good. And Big Orc is behind him. Not good. Big Orc should not be behind him. Forces hands to stay loose. Big Orc can see him. He cannot see Big Orc. Wants to turn, but cannot turn. Cannot turn unless order. Heart speeds up. But hands must stay loose.

Other noises now. Other orcs, rumbling, muttering, laughing. All behind him. And Big Orc: coming closer. He waits. Waits for order. Or for blow. Which will come first? He hopes for order. Fingers twitch. But hands must stay loose.

And then: Big Orc speaks. Order. But -- but. But he does not understand words. Does not understand. Tongue is orc-tongue. But words -- words are just noises. He does not understand.

Does not understand.

Mouth dries up. Tongue too large. Shoulders ache. No. He must understand. Why doesn’t he understand? He must understand order. Cannot obey if does not understand. Why doesn’t he understand? Why?

Big Orc steps closer. Breath on top of head. Close enough to touch. Feels warmth of Big Orc, so close. Stinks of rotten meat and worse. What can he do? There was order. But he cannot obey. He cannot obey.

I did not understand, he says. Says it fast. Throat is like sandpaper. I’m sorry, sorry. Stupid snaga, so stupid. I did not understand. Please.

Words come out of mouth. Grating, hoarse. But they are not right words. Words are not orc-tongue words. Words are fluting, high, like bird. He speaks them, but does not understand them. Wrong language. Wrong, wrong language, wrong, wrong.

Big Orc growls. Spits. Spit lands on cheek, hot, burning. He keeps head down. Why did he speak wrong language? He tries to speak again, speak right. But throat is closed up. Air will not come through. Stomach aches, rolls. And is full. Stomach is full, so full. Bile rises in throat. Stomach rolls. He will vomit. He will -- he will. And then Big Orc will know. Will know that stomach was full. Snaga should not have full stomach. Snaga should obey. Should only obey.

Big Orc’s hand lands on his shoulder. Claws dig in. Pain. But not enough. Much worse to come. Here is only promise. Promise of punishment. Here is only reminder: Big Orc is behind him. He did not obey.

Claws dig in.

And Big Orc speaks. Same order. Same words. But he does not understand. He looks. Looks to see if anything can help him understand. But he sees nothing. Only desert, empty, flat. Nothing to help him understand what Big Orc wants. He wants to speak. To beg. Please, please, I did not understand. But throat is closed. Even bird-words will not come out. And claws dig deeper.

Orc laughs behind him. Stupid snaga, orc says. It is One-Eye. Laughing. Lost its mind. No use to you now. Give it to me. I’ll show it what it gets.

Stomach lurches. One-Eye. Big Orc will not give him to One-Eye. Cannot. He tries to speak. Please, please. But words are broken, mean nothing. Sound like broken bird.

And then: One-Eye is beside him. Big Orc still behind. Claws. Blood running down back, down chest. But it is nothing. Small pain only. Promise. And One-Eye is beside him. Leaning in. Face by his ear. He keeps head down. Hands loose. But hair is gone. Where has hair gone? Nothing to hide him now. One-Eye leans in. Breath in his ear.

Useless snaga, mind is gone, One-Eye says. Laughs. Licks his cheek. His eye. Spit is burning. Give it to me, One-Eye says. I’m hungry.

No -- no. Big Orc is master. Big Orc. He is Big Orc’s snaga. Does not want anything else. Big Orc’s snaga. Please. Please.

Claws are deep in shoulders. Big Orc’s claws. Claws mean punishment. Pain to come. But mean he is Big Orc’s snaga. Big Orc claims him. He focusses on claws. Pain in shoulders. Blood on chest, on back. Big Orc’s mark on arm. He is Big Orc’s snaga. He would never be disloyal. Never.

And then: Big Orc speaks. Take it, he says. Snaga who can’t speak is no use to me. These words he understands. Clear as sound of hunting-cry. Take it. And claws are gone. Big Orc is gone. He was stupid, did not understand. And now Big Orc is gone.

One-Eye laughs. Grabs his arm, his neck. Big Orc’s mark is there, on arm.

Mine now, says One-Eye. Sinks teeth into arm, below Big Orc’s mark. Tears skin, flesh. Somewhere, orcs are laughing. One-Eye is making mark. But it is not how orcs make mark. It is how orcs eat. How orcs eat, when too hungry to kill, to cook.

He falls to knees. One-Eye looks up, laughs. Blood-stained chin. Flesh in teeth. He looks at arm. Hole in arm. White bone glints. Big Orc’s mark is gone. Gone into One-Eye’s stomach. Hurts -- hurts.

No use for mindless snaga, One-Eye says.

And then.

He feels something in hand. Solid. Strong. He looks down.

Knife. He has knife in hand. Blade is wicked, sharp, bright. He sees face in blade. Yellow eyes. Pointed ears. No hair. It is him.

One-Eye grabs him by neck. Clamps jaws onto shoulder. Tearing flesh.

And he stands. Stands and swings. Knife. Knife knife knife.

He has knife. He has knife.

And he is not in desert.

He is not in desert. He is in house. Orcs are not there. Orcs were not real. But Bald Dwarf is there, standing in front of him. Orcs were not real, but Bald Dwarf is real.

Knife is real.

Knife is against Bald Dwarf’s throat. He is holding knife. Holding knife against Bald Dwarf’s throat. Against throat. Against.

He stares at knife.

Blood wells up. Bald Dwarf’s blood.

He is holding knife.

No.

No.

No.

Dwarfs. Dwarfs, dwarfs. Dwarfs think he is litter-mate, think he is. Dwarfs gave food, gave -- gave shirt. And he is -- he is holding knife. And Bald Dwarf’s blood.

He is holding knife. He is holding knife. Bald Dwarf is staring. Speaking. Voice sounds far away. And he is holding knife. Knife. Knife. What. What can he. What can he do. What can he do?

He can run. Can only run. Or -- or kill. Run, or kill.

Run. He can run.

He takes step. One step only. One. Only one. Then he is caught. Big hand around wrist. World is spinning. Stomach lurches. Heart pounding in throat. And he is trapped. Bald Dwarf’s arm across chest. Bald Dwarf behind him. Breath hot against cheek. Like in dream. Like in dream.

Dwarfs thought he was litter-mate. And now Bald Dwarf will kill him. Will kill him, and he -- and he would have -- would have wanted to be snaga. Be dwarfs’ snaga. He would have wanted this. Maybe he could have had this.

He will not have this.

He tries to get away. Tries, tries. But Bald Dwarf is tall, strong. Bald Dwarf holds him tight. Breath hot on cheek, in ear. He holds knife. Holds tight, tighter. Hand hurts. But knife is solid, smooth against fingers. He has knife. But cannot move arm. Bald Dwarf has arm. He has knife, but Bald Dwarf has arm. Arm is not his. Knife is not his. He cannot kill. Cannot run.

He cannot.

Bald Dwarf picks him up. Carries him to table. He tries. Tries to fight. But Bald Dwarf is like stone. Feels nothing. Arm is like iron. Like collar, across chest. And then he is on table. Face against wood. This, this this? This now, this? And Bald Dwarf is slamming his wrist against table. Once, twice, again, again. Wrist hurts, hurts hurts. Arm hurts where One-Eye tore Big Orc’s mark away. Back hurts. Stomach hurts. Heart -- heart hurts. Hurts.

Once more, and fingers are numb. Cannot hold knife any more. He grits teeth. Orders fingers to curl. To hold knife handle. But they do not curl. Knife falls from hand. Fingers are not his.

Knife is not his.

Bald Dwarf pulls arm behind back. Face still pressed against table. Stomach rises, bile in throat. Snaga cannot have full stomach. They will know, they will know he ate food. If he vomits, they will know.

Bald Dwarf speaks. Voice is far away. And then different voice. Fili. Shouts. Shouts litter-mate’s name. And Bald Dwarf looks away.

Now. Now now now. No more chances. If not now, he is dead. He is dead.

He twists. Bites Bald Dwarf’s arm. Teeth pierce skin, blood is hot on tongue. Eyes were brown in glass. But he is not like dwarf. He is like orc. He is like orc.

And Bald Dwarf lets go.

And he is gone. Up and away, knife is in hand, and he sees door, door door door. Dwarfs are shouting, waking up, but he can run, he can run. If he can reach door. If he can.

Then what?

Then is not important. Now is important.

He reaches door. Drags it open. And he is outside. Outside house, outside. He can run. Can run. He runs. And then: fence.

Fence.

He forgot fence. Gate is closed. Behind him, shouts, voices. Dwarfs. Dwarfs are coming. Looking for him. He has knife. But dwarfs are many. And he -- and held knife to Bald Dwarf’s neck.

So stupid. So stupid.

Legs feel weak. He wants to sit. Sit down. Hide face. Cover head with hands. He wants to bury himself in earth. Press his face against grass. But he cannot. Cannot sit. Cannot stop. Dwarfs are coming. If they catch him--

He runs. Runs along fence. Maybe another gate. Or place where fence is lower. Or -- or -- or.

No. There is nothing.

He stares up at fence. Breath is caught in throat. Can he climb? It is tall. Smooth logs. No handholds. He tries. Tries to climb. Braces self on tree near fence. Tries to climb. But fence is tall. So tall. He cannot climb.

Noise. Noise behind him. He turns. Dwarfs are here. He is too late. Cannot climb fence. Cannot do anything. He has been so stupid. Now it is too late.

He swings knife. Does not hit dwarf. He crouches, waits. Waits for dwarf to attack. But it is not dwarf. It is Hobbit. Hobbit speaks. But he cannot hear words. Ears are roaring. Heart is pounding in throat. He cannot hear words.

Let me go, he says. Let me go, open gate. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill all dwarfs. I’ll -- I’ll kill, I’ll kill. Let me go.

But Hobbit does not let him go. Does not open gate. Only raises lantern. Looks pale, ill. And now another light. Someone else coming, fast. He tries to run. But not fast enough. Something hits him. Big, heavy, moving fast. He falls.

Bald Dwarf.

He gets up. Gets up, swings knife. He wants to run. But Bald Dwarf will catch him. He must stop Bald Dwarf first. Kill Bald Dwarf. Swings knife. But Bald Dwarf ducks away. Grabs his hair. Pulls. Head snaps back. Eyes water. He tries to turn.

And then: Fili. Fili is running. Fighting. But does not grab him. And Bald Dwarf lets go of hair. Falls back. And he is free. Free, free. But other dwarfs coming. Close now, close. And Bald Dwarf is between him and gate. And gate is closed. And he cannot run. Cannot run, cannot run, can only kill. Can only use knife. But Bald Dwarf is too strong. Too fast. And other dwarfs, too many, too many to kill. They will kill him. Unless. Unless.

He leaps forward. Swings arm around Fili’s neck. Knife to throat. Will they care? Fili is ill. Maybe weak. Will they care? He does not know. But there are no other choices. There is nothing, nothing.

He presses against Fili’s back. Arm across Fili’s chest. Knife to neck. Peers over Fili’s shoulder.

Dwarfs are all there. Stand in silence. Watching him. Do not come forward. Do not grab him.

Yes. Yes, they care.

And now. And what now? Dwarfs are between him and gate. Gate is closed. And he has Fili. Has knife and has Fili. Has never held killing-knife before today. And now knife is at Fili’s neck. If he pressed down -- slid his hand down -- it would be so quick. He knows where to cut. Has seen it often. Where to cut for slow death. Where to cut for quick death. Where to cut for no death, only pain. He knows. He knows.

He could do this. Could do it.

And then. And then dwarfs would kill him. Not quick death for him. No -- no. Not for him. Not any more. He cannot kill Fili. Needs Fili alive. Maybe they will let him go. Let him take Fili. Take Fili out of gate. Into dark lands beyond. Where orcs live. Where orcs. It is -- it is only thing. Only thing. Get out. Go back to orcs. Maybe -- maybe Big Orc will not kill him if he brings Fili. Maybe only punish. Or -- or maybe kill quick. It would be better.

Or he could -- he could do it himself. He has knife. Could do it. Not so hard. Just reach up to own neck. He knows where to cut for quick death. He feels heart beating in throat. In ears. Feels pulse of blood in fingers, in neck. He knows where to cut.

Maybe it would be better.

Big Dwarf speaks. Says words. Kili. Brother. He tries to remember what brother means. But ears are buzzing. Nothing in mind but knife. Knife and dwarfs and Fili’s hair against his cheek, Fili’s heart beating against his arm. Fili’s heart, his own heart. They are loud, these hearts.

Someone else speaks. And then. And then Hobbit. Hobbit speaks. Kili, he says. Other words. Voice is not like before. Higher, now. Hoarse, scraping. Like broken bird. Hobbit is scared. Scared he will kill Fili.

He is scared, too.

He pulls back. Away from dwarfs. Pulls Fili with him. Hair against cheek. Knife against neck. Fili, Fili Fili. Fili killed orcs. Killed One-Eye. Fili’s heart is beating against his arm. He could take Fili, give Fili to Big Orc. Hope for punishment, or at least quick death. Or he could take knife, do it himself. Own heart is beating in throat, blood beating in neck. Just reach up, just reach up. He knows where to cut for quick death. He could do it himself. Maybe better. Maybe.

Hobbit raises hands. No kil, he says. And this, he understands. Yes. He knows what Hobbit wants. Wants Fili to live. It is all he has. All he can use. This: knife against throat. It is all there is.

I’ll kill him, he says. I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him. Should say this in bird-language. But tongue is thick in mouth, cannot make bird words. He will kill Fili. He will, he will. They must let him go. They must.

Hobbit steps forward. One step, two. Stares at him. He stares back. Hobbit. Hobbit, hobbit. Hobbit cannot fight him. He has knife. Hobbit does not have knife. Hobbit cannot fight him. He could kill Fili. Could kill Hobbit. Why is Hobbit coming near? Doesn’t he see knife?

But Hobbit keeps coming. Three steps. Four. Close now. Stares at him. Not angry. Face is not angry. Hobbit shakes head. Points at Fili.

No kil, Hobbit says. Brother.

And he remembers. Brother means litter-mate. Brother should care for brother. But he does not care for Fili. He is not litter-mate. He does not care. Why doesn’t Hobbit understand? He will kill Fili. He does not care.

But dwarfs do not move. Do not come closer, but do not move away. Do not make space. Do not open gate. They care for Fili. But not enough. Not enough to let him go. It is not enough. Fili is all he has, and it is not enough.

They will not let him go.

Hobbit reaches out. Puts hands over his. Closes hand around his. Now hand is not his own. Knife is not his own. He could still kill Fili, perhaps. Knife is still against throat. He could pull down, surprise Hobbit. Only take one little cut in right place. Could still kill Fili.

But it is not enough. Fili is not enough. He can kill Fili, and they will not let him go, and it will not matter that he killed Fili, except Fili will be dead and own death will be slow, slower, slowest. He could kill Fili, but it will not matter. And knife is not his now. He cannot kill himself. Cannot move hand far enough to kill himself.

He cannot do anything. Cannot do anything.

He lets knife go.

Knife falls. Falls away from hand. Knife is not his. Knife was never his. Hand was never his. He does not own. Snaga cannot own.

Legs are weak. He falls. Falls to knees. No more, now. No more. No more. He cannot do anything. Everything he has done has only made it worse. And now there is no more.

Dwarfs are talking. Voices sound far away. Knife is gone now. Knife was never his. He does not have anything. Does not even have life, now.

Hopes it will be quick.

Hobbit sits down near him. Speaks. Hits him. Feels warm. He feels this, warmth on arm. Remember this. Remember what it was like, to have water. To have food. To be without. Remember singing. These things. Remember these now. Remember these.

Then Fili comes. He is not ready. Is not ready. It will not be quick. Knows this. Will not be quick. But stays still. Does not flinch. Fili grabs him, but he does not flinch. He is good snaga. Could have been good snaga.

But Fili does not hurt him. Only grabs arms. Holds tight. Fili’s hands warm on arms. He feels Fili’s heart beating in hands. Own heart beating. Loud, loud. Fili says litter-mate’s name. But he is not litter-mate. They must know this now. Is not litter-mate.

But Fili does not hurt him. Hands are warm. Heart beats. He is not ready.

And then: Bald Dwarf. Kneels down. Ties hands. Grabs him. Lifts him up. Runs hands over him. He waits. Tries to be ready. But no pain. Only hands. And Bald Dwarf finds second knife. Holds it up. But does not kick. Does not hit. Does not stab with knife.

They will make him wait. They will make him wait. It will not be quick.

Bald Dwarf pushes him forward. Into house. Bald Dwarf is behind him. It is not good. Not good, not good. Nothing can be good now. He tries. Tries, tries to be ready. But he is not ready.

Bald Dwarf ties him to pillar. He sits on floor. Sits still, still. He hears Bald Dwarf in corner. Finding other knives. He was so stupid, so stupid. If he had not taken knives --

But he took knives. Dwarfs gave him water and blue shirt and honey, and he took knives, and now there is nothing more. There is only waiting, and remembering, and trying, trying to be ready. It will not be quick. It will not be quick. He would have wanted to be snaga. To have this.

He will not have this now.

Chapter Text

He waits.

Dwarfs do not come. Do not punish him. Do not grab him. Do not even come near him. Stay away, far away. Only Bald Dwarf stands near. Watches him. Angry face. But does not grab. Does not touch. Only watches. Waits.

Waits for what?

He keeps eyes on ground. Keeps still. Quiet. Waits.

But dwarfs do not come.

He keeps still. But insides do not keep still. Heart beats, loud, loud, beats in throat, in arms, in eyes. Stomach twists, churns. Chest aches. Fingers are numb. He is afraid. He has always been afraid, always. But now is worse. Is like with river game. He knows it will happen. Does not know when. Can only wait.

It is not river game. River game is game with death. Many snagas die. But he does not die. Only goes to quiet place. He is afraid. Afraid to cross river. Afraid of hand holding his head under water. Air leaving lungs. Water in mouth, in eyes, in ears. He knows this. Is afraid of this. But now is different. No rivers now. No drowning now. He does not think they will drown him.

Drowning is too fast.

What, then? He should be prepared. Always be ready. Better to know. Fear is less. But how can he know? He has seen many die. Orcs, snagas, men, elves. He has seen them die. Some fast, some slow. Many different ways to die. Which way will dwarfs choose?

Wounds, he thinks. Dwarfs have axes, swords. Like to fight. Maybe just axe through head, sword through heart. No, no. Too fast. Maybe -- cut off hand, cut off foot. Wait for blood to leave body. Maybe fingers, toes. Ears. Or skin. He saw this once: orc with all skin gone. This is worse, he thinks. Better lose hands and feet. He has lost skin before, from arm, from feet, from back. He thinks this is worse.

If not wounds, then poison. Some poisons only kill. Others make mad. He has seen this. Mad snaga, black tongue, screaming at nothing, talking to no-one. He hopes not this kind of poison. Hurt is bad. Mad is worse. Enough things to scream at in real world. No need for more that are not there. Hopes not poison.

Too many ways. He cannot prepare. And how long? Slow, he thinks, slow, slow. But how slow? Hours? Hours is not so bad. Once he saw snaga take five days to die. It is not normal. Orcs move most days, not normally in same place five days. But wanted to see how long snaga would take. He gave snaga food and water, enough to stay alive. Orcs told him to do this. Wanted to see how long snaga could last. Snaga with no arms, no legs. No eyes, no ears. No teeth. How long could snaga last?

Five days. That is how long.

No eyes is worst, he thinks. Five days, no eyes. This is worst. Snaga was mad before end. No poison, but mad anyway. Because no eyes, he thinks. Snaga could not see what was coming. Went mad with fear.

Snaga lasted five days. But he is not like that snaga. He is strong. Khozd shrakhun. Could maybe last longer. How long? Eight days? Ten? Ten days no eyes?

He hopes not.

He does not know how. Does not know how long. He does not know anything. Can only wait. Wait, wait.

He should have done it himself. Had knife in hand. Knife, so easy. Just move arm. Just cut down. He thinks about it. What would it have been like? Pain, yes. But fast, so fast. Pain, and then finished. All finished.

He curls fingers behind back. Hand aches. But no knife there now. Should have done it himself. But too late now. Too late.

Stomach lurches. He keeps still. Waiting, waiting. But dwarfs do not come. Some dwarfs lying down now. Others working. Quiet, quiet. Not expecting anything. Not ready. So it will not be now. Not be soon. He must wait. He must wait.

Hands twitch behind back. No, no. This is wrong. Skin is crawling, itching. He wants to vomit. Wants to shout. No, he cannot. Must keep quiet. Keep still. But how? How keep quiet, when skin is crawling, when stomach climbs up into throat?

Think of something else. Something else.

It will not be fast. Maybe hours, days. But soon, soon it will be done. It will be done. And then he will be dead. Will it be better? Yes, he thinks it will be better. Does not know what happens to snagas after death. Orcs say return to filth. Made from filth, return to filth. He hopes for this. Filth is nothing. Feels nothing, knows nothing. He hopes for this.

Tall Man told him dwarfs go somewhere else. Go to house. House where all other dead dwarfs are. But he is not dwarf. Orcs made him like dwarf, but he is not dwarf. Hopes he is not dwarf. Does not want to go to house with dead dwarfs. Wants to stop. Wants to go back to filth. Feel nothing, know nothing. Soon, soon.

Will it better? It will be better. He has known this. Known for many years. Maybe always. Dead is better than alive. He has known this. But he has lived. Always, always lived. He has had so many chances. So many. Could have died so many times. Not just with knife. Many times before. Dead is better than alive. But somehow he cannot let himself die. He does not know why. Has never known why. Has only lived. Lived, and lived, and never known how to stop.

He will stop soon. It is good.

It is good, it is good. He tells himself this. But stomach still twists. Chest still aches. Sweat slides down neck. Soon there will be nothing. He wants this. Wants it, wants it. He must want it. There is nothing else now. He must want it. Must want it enough to smother fear of pain. Of poison. Of madness. It will come. He can do nothing. Can only prepare. Can only make himself want it. If he cannot do this, he will lose mind. Waiting, waiting. Will lose mind before ever loses eyes. Mind is only thing. Only thing he has. He knows mind is not really his. Knows mind is ragged, fading at edges. Memories slip away. But it is only thing. Closest thing he has to himself. He must not lose mind.

Then he must prepare. Must prepare. Must not -- must not let crawling skin take over thoughts. Sit still. Keep still, still. Quiet. He is good snaga. Has always been good snaga. Because he is strong, yes, because he is strong. But also because of mind. Because he can make himself still, quiet, when other snagas cry and shake. Because orcs made him, made him snaga, gave him snaga mind. Mind belongs to orcs, just like body. But he uses it. He knows how to use it. Knows how to use it to be best snaga. To please orcs. To sit still.

He will not lose mind. He will sit and wait. He will be still.

He is still.

----

Night is long. Longest night. Time drips like water. One drop. Two drops. Slow, so slow. Heart beats in ears. Thud, thud. Each thud brings it closer. But how many more? He does not know. How many more thuds before heart is quiet? It will be good, he thinks. Heart is always too loud, too fast. Aches and twists, flutters and presses against chest. Heart will be quiet, still. It will be good.

And still: nothing. Dwarfs do nothing. Lie still, but do not sleep. Waiting too, perhaps. Waiting for Big Dwarf. Big Dwarf sits at table. Stares at nothing. Thinking. Other dwarfs wait. Wait for Big Dwarf to decide.

He waits, too. Wonders if this is part of it, of punishment. Each moment slow, painful. These are last moments. Maybe worst moments. Stomach is tearing itself apart. Skin is crawling. But he can do nothing. Can only wait.

Thud. Thud. Time drips by. Heart beats. He stares at floor. Bald Dwarf is not asleep. Stands by him. Watches. Waits. Bald Dwarf also waits for Big Dwarf. He bit Bald Dwarf, held knife to throat, made Bald Dwarf bleed. Maybe Big Dwarf will let Bald Dwarf tear him apart. Bald Dwarf watches him, watches, watches. One-Eye used to watch, too. One-Eye wanted this: to tear him apart. Big Orc never let him. Except in dream.

Should have stayed with orcs. It is too late now, too late to think this. But he thinks it anyway. Should have stayed. Should have fought harder to go back. Should not have warned Hobbit when orcs were passing. Hobbit would be dead. Fili, dead. And he would be with Big Orc. Would not have had knife. Would never have had chance to be so stupid. Would be with Big Orc now, working, travelling, serving, as snaga should. Would not be here, waiting for death and not receiving it. Would not be here, not understanding anything, not knowing what it means, not knowing why. Would be with Big Orc. Would be snaga, would know how to be snaga.

Hobbit would be dead. Fili, dead. And it would be same. Same as always. He would not have had honey. Would not have heard singing. Would not have worn blue shirt. These memories: he touches them with mind. They would not be there. So different from everything else. He has others, memories he keeps, counts when orcs are sleeping. Taste of wild berries when stomach is empty. Scrap of red cloth with yellow stitches he found on bush, kept in his hand two days before not safe any more. Voices of stars he hears sometimes, when sleeping, or when no food or water for too long. He has these, keeps these, counts these. He has been alive for years. He does not know how many. Too many, too many. And he has found these things, kept them, been careful to keep them from the edges of his mind. But now, he has been with dwarfs only days, only very few days, and he has so many more. Water, and hot food, and what it is like to be without. Would it be good, if he had stayed with orcs? He would not know this, what it is like to be without, what it is like to taste honey, what it is like to wear blue shirt. But he would not be waiting. He would not be waiting.

He should not think. Should not think of this -- of what it is like, what it has been like, with dwarfs. He has done this thing, held knife, pressed knife against Fili’s throat. Now it is not important any more. He will not have these things. He should not think. Should not think about how he has had them. How he could have had them. How he could have been dwarfs’ snaga, maybe, maybe. What this would have been like. He cannot think of this, cannot. It is too late. He has held knife. He has done this thing. He would not have been good snaga to dwarfs. Dwarfs do not know how to treat snaga. Left him alone with knives. He thought he was good snaga, but only alone with knives few hours, and stole knives. He is not good snaga. He will not be good snaga now. He should not think about it. Cannot help it now. Too late now.

But what? Cannot think about death without skin prickling, throat aching. Cannot think about what it was like with dwarfs without knowing what he could have had, if he was better snaga. What, then? Waiting, waiting. So much time. What can he think of?

Nothing. He can think of nothing.

Yes. He knows this. He sits, stares at floor. Listens to breath: in, out. Soon, will not need to think any more. Until then, thinks of nothing.

----

Morning comes.

Dwarfs sit up. Were not sleeping, only lying down. Now sit up. Night was long. But now night is over. Dwarfs are not waiting any more. Is it better? Maybe it is worse.

He waits. Dwarfs do not come near him. Only Bald Dwarf, watching still. Big Dwarf sits at table. Eats. Does not speak. Other dwarfs also, eating. Speaking little, only quietly. Not noisy like before. They look. He keeps head down, but sees them looking. Short glances only. Angry faces. He keeps head down.

Old Dwarf gets up from table. Brings plate to Bald Dwarf. Speaks. Points at him. Bald Dwarf nods. Old Dwarf goes back. Bald Dwarf stands, watching him. Then tears off piece of bread. Holds out. Close to his mouth.

Heart turns over in chest. This, then. This. Better than no eyes for ten days. Better than no skin. It is not worst. Even if he goes mad, it is not worst. He draws breath. He has been waiting, waiting. Has wanted wait to be over. Now it is over. All he must do is open mouth. Let it be over.

He tries. Tries to open mouth. But jaw is locked. Heart is thundering. Stomach folds, contorts. Open. Open open open. Let it be over.

Bald Dwarf waves bread. Speaks. Low voice, angry. He does not know words. But understands anyway: open. Eat. It is time.

It is time.

He opens mouth. Bald Dwarf drops bread inside. Taste is not bitter. Fresh, warm. Tastes better than any food orcs have ever given him. Even now, even with this, dwarfs are so much better. Maybe only to show him what he could have had.

He sits with bread in mouth. Thinks about what it means to swallow. Hopes it is fast, hopes it will not make him lose mind. Swallows. Waits. Stomach is still twisting. But no worse than before. Bald Dwarf holds out more bread.

He opens mouth.

----

He waits.

Food sits in stomach. Heavy, like stone. Bald Dwarf made him eat all of bread, whole apple. Maybe poison was on apple. Maybe on bread. Nothing tasted bitter. But now bile in throat. Stone in stomach. Skin is prickling. Prickling because of poison? Or only because of fear? What will poison do? How long will it take? He does not know.

Dwarfs do not look at him. Do not come near him. Only Bald Dwarf watches. Why do not dwarfs watch? Do they not want to see it? He does not understand this. Why give him poison, if not want to watch?

Maybe it will take long time. Maybe this. Dwarfs know there is no point watching yet. He watches dwarfs from under hair. Waits for dwarfs to start watching him. Then he will know: it is time.

But dwarfs do not watch.

Hobbit comes. Stands nearby once, twice. But does not speak. Does not stay.

And dwarfs do not watch.

----

And then: something changes. It is not him. He does not change: food sits in stomach, skin prickles, heart beats too fast. But Hobbit comes. Hobbit and Fili. They stand by Bald Dwarf. Fili talks. Bald Dwarf speaks back. He tries to listen. Cannot hear words over sound of heart. Is heart louder than before? Will poison make heart louder, faster, until heart climbs up into throat and chokes him?

Whatever poison does, he hopes it is soon.

And then: Bald Dwarf moves. He makes himself small, forces himself not to clench fists. Bald Dwarf takes out knife. But does not cut him. Only cuts rope tying wrists to post. Grabs arm. Pulls him to feet. Legs are numb from all night without moving. He does not stagger. Keeps head down. Goes where Bald Dwarf takes him. Outside, outside.

It is now.

----

They go outside. Grass is soft under feet. Sun is warm, sky is bright. Dwarfs sit on bench under trees. He kneels. Waits. Tries to remember name of trees in bird-language. Hobbit told him yesterday. He cannot remember.

Yesterday, he was alive. Today, he is dead. Name of trees does not matter any more.

Not all dwarfs are there. Bald Dwarf, Big Dwarf, Fili. Hobbit, Tall Man. Other dwarfs still in house. Why? He does not understand. Other dwarfs will want to watch. See poison work. Why are other dwarfs still in house?

Maybe it is privilege. Only most favoured dwarfs allowed to watch. Could be this. Or maybe -- maybe it is not poison. Stomach still twists, skin still prickles. But no different from before. No special nausea, no bitterness on tongue, no unusual pain. Hours now since he ate food. Why give poison if have to wait hours to see it work?

Maybe not poison. Maybe only food to keep him alive. Keep him alive for something else. But what?

He stares at ground. Waits. Dwarfs sit, Hobbit, Tall Man. But Fili does not sit. Fili walks up, down. Pacing. Fili is angry. But does not grab. Does not kick. Only paces. And then: speaks.

He does not understand words. But Tall Man turns to him. Why did you run? he asks. Asks in orc-tongue, but quiet, so quiet. Orc-tongue is not meant to be quiet. Sounds strange. Sounds wrong.

And question. Question is wrong. No-one has ever asked him question like this before. Why ask him why? It does not matter why he does things. Only matters that he does, or does not. This is what is punished. Why is not important.

He does not know how to answer question. Has never answered question like this. Dead snaga should not speak. Speaking only ever makes things worse. He has seen this before: snaga crying, begging, talking fast and low. Only ever worse. Orcs are angry. Or think it is funny, watching snaga lose mind with fear. Orcs make death longer. Dead snaga should not speak.

He does not speak.

Did you understand? Tall Man asks. He does not look up. Does not speak. He understood, yes. But he cannot answer. What would answer be? Why did he run? He ran for same reason any snaga runs. Weakness, fear, stupidity. He ran because he did not want to die. But now he will die anyway. What use is answer to question? No use.

And: worse than no use. He ran to go back to Big Orc. He cannot tell Tall Man this. Big Dwarf is his master. Big Dwarf has not marked him, but still master. Fili took him from orcs, gave him to Big Dwarf. He is snaga: he cannot choose master. He cannot choose to go back to Big Orc. Big Orc is not his-- Big Orc -- He is. He is stolen snaga. Dead snaga. He cannot tell them this. Cannot speak.

Fili speaks. Tall Man replies. He tries to listen to words. But ears are ringing, buzzing. When Tall Man turns back, he barely hears orc-words.

Why did you run? Tall Man says. Speak.

But he does not speak. Why this question? Why is it important? He cannot answer. Throat is clogged with fear. He has been waiting, waiting, yet they will not kill him. Why must it take so long? Why questions, why bread, why other dwarfs not here? He does not understand, does not understand anything. Should have stayed with orcs, should have stayed, should have stayed.

But did not stay. He let himself be stolen, and now he is dead snaga. He has always known: stupid snaga is dead snaga. Has always tried, tried, tried not to be stupid. But he was stupid: let himself be stolen. Then more stupid: took knives. Then most stupid: fought Bald Dwarf. He has been nothing but stupid. And now he is dead.

Fili paces, paces. Impatient. Angry. Wants to punish. But does not. Does not grab, does not hit. Why? Why does he wait? Because Big Dwarf has not spoken. Big Dwarf is leader of band. He will give order. But he only sits, watches, frowns. Does not speak.

Bald Dwarf speaks. Voice is quiet, growling. Tall Man turns to him. Why do you not speak? he asks.

More questions. But he can answer this one. I wait, he says. It is clear. He has been waiting, waiting for many hours. They have made him wait. And he can: he can wait. He can be still. Soon he will be still for ever.

Tall Man speaks to dwarfs in bird-language. Fili replies. Tall Man turns back.

What are you waiting for? he asks.

It is hard, to be still. To be still when dwarfs behave so strangely. They must know why he ran. Must know why he waits. But they ask. Why do they ask? It is trick?

He knows what he should say. He is waiting to be killed. But when he opens his mouth, words do not come. He cannot say this. Says something else, instead. I am waiting for you to punish me, he says. Hopes it will not make them angry. It is not lie, not really. Only not whole truth.

But Fili stops pacing. Others sit and stare. Silent. Still. Yes: it was wrong. He has made them angry. Should have told whole truth. No point lying. All know why he is waiting. No point lying.

And then, Big Dwarf speaks.

Breath catches in throat. Heart twists in chest. Big Dwarf has spoken. He braces himself. But there is no hit, no kick. Only Tall Man turns to him. Dwalin and Fili will choose punishment, he says. They are ones you injured.

He stares at ground. Fili, yes. Dwalin, Dwalin must mean Bald Dwarf. Dwalin is Bald Dwarf’s name. Fili, maybe Fili, Fili has always been strange, strong-but-weak, maybe Fili will not want such long death for him. But Bald Dwarf, Bald Dwarf whose blood he swallowed -- no, no, Bald Dwarf will not kill quickly.

Bald Dwarf steps forward. Pulls out knife. He braces himself. At least waiting is over. But knife, knife. This means not poison. This means cut. He hopes not eyes.

Bald Dwarf steps behind him. Kneels. He remembers dream. Big Orc behind him, claws sharp in shoulders. Dream, dream that started all this. That ended all this. Now dream is real. Heart is in throat. Stomach rolls. Dream is real.

Bald Dwarf takes his hands. Touch is firm, but not painful. He hears knife blade clink against shackles. But there is no pain. Only Bald Dwarf holding him, firm but not painful. Then lets go. Stands up. Speaks. And -- and hands are free. Rope is cut. Bald Dwarf did not cut him. Cut rope. Bald Dwarf cut rope. Cut rope, and then stood. This is not punishment.

Bald Dwarf steps away. He looks: cannot help himself. Needs to see what Bald Dwarf is doing. Why Bald Dwarf has not begun punishment. Only cut rope, cut rope. Why, why why? Waiting still, but why? Big Dwarf has spoken. Said that Bald Dwarf could punish. But Bald Dwarf did not punish. He does not understand.

Bald Dwarf’s face does not help. He is only watching. Does not look angry. Not eager. Not anything. Only watching, watching.

Fili steps forward. He looks at ground. Bald Dwarf has let Fili punish first, maybe. Or -- or -- no, he cannot understand. Arms are free, but he holds hands together behind back. Bows head. He is snaga. Will obey.

Fili crouches. Watches him. Does not draw knife. Raises hand, but does not touch. Not grab, not hit. Only watches. Then speaks.

Look at him, Tall Man says. He does not want to look at Fili. But he is snaga. Will obey. He raises head. Fili is watching. Not angry. Not smiling. Serious face, watching. Does not touch him. Only watches.

Fili speaks. Tall Man translates. Will you hurt any khozd again?

Again? How can he hurt again? He will not be alive to hurt. Will go back to filth, to dirt, to nothing. How can Fili ask if hurt again? Unless -- unless Fili will not kill him. But -- no, but this -- no, it cannot, Fili cannot--

No, he says. It is true, whether he dies or lives. He was so stupid, so stupid. If -- if Fili will not kill him -- he is stupid to even think Fili might not kill him, stupid, stupid. But if Fili does not kill him, he will never, ever raise hand to dwarfs again. Never. He will never touch knife, even if knife is so easy to take. He does not want it, knife is not for snaga. Snaga does not have strength, does not have weapon. He does not want to be anything but snaga.

No, he says, bird-language this time. He should speak bird-language. Fili is still watching him. Could he -- no, he will kill. Surely he will kill. But something swells in his chest. Painful, bright feeling. Makes it hard to breathe.

Fili speaks. Tall Man translates. He asks you to swear it.

I swear, he says. Does not hesitate. If, if. Yes, he says. Cannot say I swear in bird-language, but can say this. Can show Fili. He was stupid, but he can be good. Can be good snaga, best. Punishment, yes, yes, but if -- if Fili does not kill him, he can be such good snaga for dwarfs. Will never do anything he is not told again. Never, never. Thing in chest swells more. Presses against heart, stomach, throat. Should not let himself think it. But thinks it anyway. Maybe, maybe.

Fili reaches out. Grabs arms. He braces himself. But Fili’s touch is only firm, warm. Does not hurt. He stands. Pulls them both up together. Speaks.

They will not punish you, says Tall Man.

Stomach twists. He turns to look at Tall Man. Surely he has misunderstood. Or Tall Man has misunderstood. He thought -- maybe, maybe Fili would not kill him. Stupid thought, stupid. But now this? Now not even punishment? No, no, Tall Man is wrong. Or lying. Trying to trick him. He held knife, raised knife to dwarfs. He did this, did this, knife was in his hand. Tall Man must be wrong.

Fili speaks again. Still touching him, warm, solid. Voice has no anger in it. He knows only one word: brother.

Do you understand? Tall Man asks.

But no. No, he does not understand.

----

Then it is over. Big Dwarf goes away. Tall Man, Hobbit go too. Bald Dwarf does not go. Stays. Watches. But does not grab. Does not take out knife again. And Fili -- Fili takes arm. Pulls hands from behind back. Fili walks. Smiles. Pulls him along. But grip is not hard, not painful. Only warm. Fili holds his arm and smiles. He is not ill now. Sickness, weakness has left him. And he does this: smiles. Talks. As though there was never knife. As though he never pressed knife against Fili’s neck and said I will kill him. As though there is no reason for punishment at all.

He walks. Listens. Fili’s voice is different to Hobbit’s. Bird-language sounds firmer, rounder. Fili does not explain words like Hobbit. Only talks and talks. Smiles and smiles. Points to things. He listens, but only understands few words. Im. Yuah. Look. And brother. This word, again and again. Fili still thinks he is litter-mate. Still thinks this, after everything. Calls him brother, brother brother brother. This word he knows.

Chest hurts. Swelling feeling is worse. He thinks -- he thinks no death. He thinks this. Allows himself to think it. He feels light, dizzy. Ears ring, buzz. But punishment. But there is no punishment. And he cannot think this. Tall Man said it. And now Fili only talks and smiles, and Bald Dwarf only follows and watches. Now hands are not bound. But he cannot think it. It is wrong, wrong wrong. There must be punishment. He did this: he stood and said I will kill him. He tasted Bald Dwarf’s blood in his mouth. There must be punishment. There must be punishment.

But Fili only talks and smiles, points, holds his arm, warm, never painful. And he thinks -- if it is true? If there is no punishment? Swelling in chest chokes him. Head is so light, so dizzy. No, no. There must be punishment. No, he does not understand.

But he walks. He walks with Fili. He waits. Tries to listen. Tries to understand. Wishes for Hobbit. Hobbit tells him things. Explains things. Sometimes makes no sense, but tries. Tall Man speaks orc-tongue, but does not explain, does not make sense. Hobbit -- maybe Hobbit can tell him. Can tell him what Tall Man meant when said there will be no punishment.

But Hobbit is somewhere else. Somewhere else for hours. Only Fili, talking, talking, smiling, smiling. Brother, brother, brother. Only ears buzzing, only swelling in chest. He is alive. Alive, alive. And he thinks now he will not die. Not yet. He wants to let this be in his mind, wants to know this, to feel it. But he cannot. Can only think about this: no punishment. Can only wait. Surely there will be punishment. He has misunderstood. He waits.

But sun sinks in sky, and still nothing. He sits beside Fili on bench and lets himself think: maybe no punishment. Maybe not. Maybe Tall Man was not lying. Head spins. Stomach is sick. Arms feel weak. But no, no. Should not let himself think this. It is madness. It has no meaning.

Then Big Dwarf calls Fili’s name. Fili smiles, stands up. Does not take his arm. He does not move. He swore this: he will never do anything again unless dwarfs tell him. They have not killed him, they have not killed him. He will be perfect snaga, always.

Fili goes. Bald Dwarf still near, still watching. But does not come close. He sits, stares. Stares at nothing. Tries to understand. But cannot. Cannot understand.

And then: Hobbit. Hobbit, at last. Hobbit comes, sits. Speaks. He cannot hear words. Ears are buzzing. He turns. Maybe Hobbit will tell him. He hopes, hopes.

Why you will no punish me? he asks, and then realises. He cannot ask Hobbit. Does not know words. Does not know bird-language, does not know. Hands shake. He cannot ask, cannot ask.

But Hobbit only nods and speaks. Words are not words he knows, but one is orc-tongue word. Why, Hobbit says. Strange, soft, bird voice, orc word is blurry, singing. But it is word. And Hobbit frowns, thinks, then smiles. Wye, he says.

Wye, he says. Wye you will no punish me, wye, wye?

Punsh, says Hobbit. Then more words. Last ones he knows: wye no punsh.

This, then. He asks this. Wye no punsh? he says. He cannot say what he wants -- wants to tell Hobbit he hurt Bald Dwarf, he held knife to Fili’s throat. But he cannot say these things. Only has few words. Khozd shrakhun kil, punsh, he says. It is not right: he did not kill, he cannot punish. But he does not know words. Hopes Hobbit will understand. No punsh, he says. Ears are ringing now. He does not understand. Does not, does not.

Hobbit waves hand. Turns. Looks at him. Fili isyuah brother, he says. Dwalin isyuah frend.

Dwalin means Bald Dwarf. Is Bald Dwarf’s name. But frend -- no, he does not know this word. Brother -- he knows this. He knows it. Fili still thinks he is litter-mate. Is this why they do not punish? But they will find out, will find out. He does not want them to think this. It is not safe. It will be worse, so much worse when they find out. He does not want to be litter-mate. Wants only to be snaga. To be perfect snaga. This, only this.

No Fili brother, he says. Wants Hobbit to understand. He is snaga, snaga. He wants to be snaga. No im is brother, he says. Hopes it is right. Hopes Hobbit understands.

Hobbit speaks. Wye. And other words. But he does not know other words. Cannot understand what Hobbit says. He shakes head.

Hobbit speaks. Wye, he says. Yu. He points at him. Then new word. Think. He taps head. Yes, think. Yes, he understands this. Fili no yuah brother, Hobbit says.

Yes, yes, he understands this. But cannot speak back. I am snaga, he says. I have no litter-mates. I was made of filth, by orcs. I would know. I would know if Fili was litter-mate. I have never seen him before. How can he be litter-mate if I have never seen him? I have always been snaga, always. There is nothing else.

It is no use. Hobbit does not understand him. He cannot say this in bird-language. But he considers. What can he say? What will make Hobbit understand?

Think, he says. This is new word. He taps head, like Hobbit did, to make sure word is right. No Fili here. How can he be litter-mate if he has never seen Fili before?

Hobbit speaks. Many words, fast. He does not know words. Shakes head again. He must learn, must learn quickly. Must learn more words.

Hobbit reaches for him. He braces himself, but Hobbit only touches head. Not hard touch, not painful. Only touches.

Fili here, Hobbit says. Orks -- orcs. Orks punish Kili, Fili no here. Yu forgot.

He frowns. Many words, some also he does not know. He had new word wrong, punish, not punsh. And other new word -- forgot. He says this word. Repeats what Hobbit said. No Fili here. Forgot.

Yes, says Hobbit. But he does not understand. What is forgot? Hobbit said he knew Fili, then -- then orcs punish. And he does not know Fili. What does it mean?

It means he has forgotten. Hobbit thinks he has forgotten Fili. This is what it is, forgot. Hobbit still thinks he is litter-mate. Thinks he has only forgotten. And this is why -- this is why they do not punish him. This must be why. After what he has done -- this must be why.

No punish brother, he says. He wants to ask Hobbit if this is why, because Fili thinks he is litter-mate. If it is normal not to punish litter-mate. Wants to ask why. Brother kil, no punish, he says. He held knife to Fili’s throat, but Fili told him there would be no punishment. He wants to understand.

Hobbit speaks. Words like flowing stream. Kil, he hears. Nothing else he understands. He wants to tell Hobbit: speak slowly. I do not understand you. But he cannot say this. Can only listen. And Hobbit raises arm, pretends to bite. New words. Too fast to hear all words, but last word he hears. Bad.

Bad, he says, quick, careful. Wants Hobbit to know he can learn words. Can be good snaga. What does word mean? Bite?

Hobbit smiles. Very wide, smile takes up whole face. Gud, he says. Then frowns. Deep, face is creased, but still does not look angry. Only not pleased. Bad, he says.

Yes, yes, he understands this. Gud, bad, yes. Useful words, easy words. And he understands mime: Hobbit told him he was bad for biting Bald Dwarf. He knows this, knows he was bad. Was worst, worst snaga. Deserves to die for what he has done. But he is not dead.

Im is bad, yes? he says. Wants to show Hobbit he has understood. Has understood words, and understood what he has done. Knows he deserves punishment, worse than punishment. Knows this.

No, Hobbit says. Yur is gud. Yur gud. And now he is not sure. Gud was with smile, smiling face, but now Hobbit says he is gud. What is gud? He does not know. But bad. He knows bad.

He deserves to die. But dwarfs have not killed him. Have not punished him. He wants to tell Hobbit, tell him he will be good snaga, will be perfect snaga. He was wrong, wrong to take knives, wrong, wrong. But he did not want to hurt Bald Dwarf, did not want to hurt Fili. Only dream. Only because of dream.

No im kil dwarf, he says. Points at Bald Dwarf. No im want kil dwarf. Dwarf gud. Sleep bad. Forgot.

He hopes it is right. So many bird words. He is not sure of meaning of all. But hopes Hobbit will understand. But Hobbit only stares. Speaks. Looks nervous. No words he understands. He does not understand Hobbit. Hobbit does not understand him. How can he be perfect snaga? No use for snaga who cannot speak.

Then Hobbit speaks again. Speaks, but not bird language. Orc-tongue. Not unnerstah, Hobbit says.

He stares. Understand? He says.

Undstan, says Hobbit. Bird-language now. But this word, this word means understand. This is most important, most important word. I not undstan, says Hobbit.

No, he knows this. Hobbit does not understand. But not angry. Only wants to understand. All day, all night he has waited. Has waited, waited for death. And now he is here, on bench. Sun is warm. Grass is green. And Hobbit is not angry. Only wants to understand.

Undtstan, he says. Yes, he has learned word. He thinks. How can he say it, so that Hobbit will know? He points. Points at Bald Dwarf. Points at self. Sleep bad, he says. Hopes sleep is right word. Mimes sleep, so Hobbit will know. Forgot, he says. Thinks this word means forget. Hopes Hobbit will understand. He did not know where he was. He forgot he was with dwarfs. Did not mean to hurt Bald Dwarf.

Hobbit speaks. Yu bad, he says. Other words, too, but only these he understands. Yes. Yes, he is bad. But he did not want to kill Bald Dwarf. He will never hurt dwarf again, never, never, not if Hobbit places knife in hand himself.

Forgot, no undstan, he says. Sleep bad.

Hobbit speaks. He does not understand any words. But he can say this now. Can say it. No undstan, he says.

No, Hobbit says. Then more words. But hits him. Hobbit hits him on knee. And words do not matter now. Knows what this means, when Hobbit hits. It is not like when orcs hit. It does not hurt, is not punishment. Is only warm. It means he is right, or not wrong, or not bad. It is good, this hit. Only ever good. He feels swelling in chest again, so he cannot breathe. Hobbit hit him. Hobbit was not angry. Hobbit hit him. Said he would not be punished. Not punished.

He does not know. Does not know whether to believe it. He does not understand, not at all. He did this thing. He was litter-mate and he did this thing. And no death. No punishment. Hobbit only hit him. Hit him like he has done nothing wrong. Can he believe? Feeling swells in chest. But all day, Fili talking. And Tall Man said it, and Fili said it, and Hobbit said it: no punishment.

No punishment.

Hobbit goes away. Goes to talk to Young Dwarf. He stays. Sits on bench. Bald Dwarf nearby. But does not come closer. Only watches, watches. He sits. Sun is warm. Food is warm in stomach. Not poisoned. No pain. He is without.

They still think he is litter-mate. He is not, he is not. But Hobbit -- Hobbit said he forgot. Forgot Fili. Hobbit said he knew Fili, and forgot him.

No. No. He has forgotten many things, he knows this. Many, many. But he has always been snaga, always. He has forgotten many things, but he keeps good things. Counts them often. Water and honey and singing. Red cloth he found in woods. Voices of stars. He keeps good things. He would have kept Fili. If he was litter-mate. He would have kept this, could not have forgotten this.

But if he did not?

No. No. It means nothing. It can mean nothing. He sees inside himself. He is filth, made from filth. He is nothing but dirt and weakness. He is khozd shrakhun. How can he be litter-mate? Fili is not khozd, not shrakhun. How can he be litter-mate?

He is not litter-mate. But he is something. He is something. Orcs made him like dwarf. He does not know why. But knows why. Dwarfs are strong, fierce. Dwarfs can bear much pain. He knows this. Knows he has always been stronger than man-snagas, stronger than orc-snagas. This is why orcs made him like dwarf. They made him like dwarf so he could be better snaga. It is right, then. Right that he should be snaga to dwarfs. He is like dwarf. So like dwarf. Close enough. He is made of filth, but he is so close. So they will want him. Dwarf is best snaga for dwarf. He will be perfect. He will never disobey again, never do anything again unless they tell him. Yes, he swears this, he swears. He is not dead, is not punished. He will never forget this. Fili stole him. He is stolen snaga. He cannot choose, does not want to choose master. Wants only to be perfect snaga. He belongs to dwarfs. Thought makes feeling swell in chest. Painful. But he does not want feeling to stop. Yes. Yes.

He belongs to dwarfs now.