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King Under the Mountain

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From the battle at the gates of Moria, Azog crawled, weak from loss of blood and wretched with loss of pride. Shock bleached the world of color and sound—the sweet smell of blood retreated behind the metallic stench of adrenaline—but Azog was not a sniveling dwarf, to perish from the loss of a limb. Already his thick orcish blood had begun to stanch its flow; strong blood, of the warrior-lines that marched in the halls of vanquished dwarves, blood that spilled black with resolve and virtue rather than watery red.

No wound he took would suppurate, though it might scar; no carrion he devoured would poison him. Whatever detritus littered his wounds would fester, then knot, then be embraced by his body in a ropy matrix of connective tissue, then be ignored. If he was a freak, a sport, the albino spawn of some unknown sire, he was also powerful, and undaunted by pain. Even if he died of these wounds, it would be a warrior’s death, a fitting end to a victorious life.

There was only one fate remaining for him to dread. Under the shade of a battered gorsebush he took his rest, hissing defiance to the pain and the thirst, knowing that if he crept where his comrades could see him, they would fall on him and tear him to pieces, he who was once their commander. Honor dictated that he die alone rather than seeking to burden his brethren with his wounds.

Azog did not intend to die.

When the sun fell and the dwarves set about their great burning, whining their self-pitying songs of grief, Azog emerged from his hiding place. He did not fear dwarves. Moving from corpse to corpse of his slaughtered kin, a pale lurching shadow in the flickering flames, he found what he sought: half-drained skins of liquor and of the bracing mineral-leached water of the caves. He found one of the small goblin-cacklers from his own infantry, still gagging and coughing with his ribs staved in, and he ripped out the thing’s throat and drank its blood, mercy and sustenance at once. From another corpse he salvaged a jagged halberd and from another a rat-catching trident, the latter with some idea that he might bind it to the stub of his arm as a makeshift rake.

Then, his hunger and thirst sated and his body regaining strength, Azog slunk to the crumbling coals of one of the dwarven pyres. Even he, fearless and tested in battle, needed a moment to steel himself, to breathe the stench of death and the sharpness of cool night air, to recall the foul hairy face of his stick-swinging enemy. He delayed, cursing his cowardice. He struggled with scavenged leather thongs, trying to bind the trident to his arm, but with each sloppy failure his self-loathing grew, and his hunger for vengeance, and his shame that he was reduced to such low circumstance, until in a frustrated rage he shivered the ash handle of the trident across his knee.

Only a sharp stake remained, and a withered iron claw, a mockery he could not bear; and crying out, he thrust the stake into the stump of his arm, along the bone, feeling the splinters wedge and tear in his flesh until the point emerged, slick with gore, from the muscle at his elbow. Needle-twinges of shattered nerves sang out; ravaged muscle spasmed; the pain began like a rock-slide, like a cave-in, and buried him in agony.

He had thought it a fitting punishment, but now he scarcely thought at all, a beast fixated on the one thing that could bring him relief. Screams already tore his throat, and when he thrust his arm with its transfixing claw into the dwarven pyre, all remaining voice ripped away in white heat and pain. The claw took up the burning, hot metal cauterizing inner flesh as surely as fire sealed the outside, and as he spiraled backward into darkness he knew that he would carry it to his dying day.

When he awoke, hours before a weak dawn, he slunk away again, not daring to seek his own kin; and thus he traveled, clawing and slashing the little prey he caught, until at last he came to the caves of the Great Goblin, the true King Under the Mountain.

By now his body had healed, at least superficially; if he was not strong, he was nearly whole, save for the stub of his arm, and orcs with cruder prostheses had served well under his command. He snarled at the goblins who clustered around him as he entered the dark, the quick cunning grinners who scarcely came up to his waist, and they decided he was strong enough to live. Food they gave him, and shelter from the sun, and a place at the bottom of their hierarchy—and after only two encounters with the creatures that crawled up from the deeps of Gundabad, he was given a small platoon of his own, twenty creepers and two brutes.

He refused to speak of his past. Not that anyone persisted, with hundreds of orcs and goblins and trolls arriving daily, all swearing their service to the Great Goblin’s rule, all relieved to be returned to structure and direction after a time of wandering aimless in the wilds.

All save for Azog, who hungered still for command, and who loathed the quick-eyed chattering goblin-kin with their pale hides and their slithering tunnels and their slender loping bodies. They were the utter opposite of the warbands of Moria: no reliance upon muscle, too much gabble in the ranks, and all slaveringly worshipful of their Great Goblin, whose face Azog had not yet seen. They described the Goblin as immense, fat with a thousand conquests, enormously clever—which Azog interpreted according to his own experience: a fat old orc, idling upon his past achievements, maintaining supremacy through guile and empty threats. If there was one thing orc-kin were born knowing, it was the hunger for hierarchy, for commands from above, and an ambitious orc could rest in his old age upon the inertia of his sycophantic armies.

A dishonorable way to live. An orc commander should die victorious in battle, not fat upon a throne. He would throw down this goblin king easily and seize control of the tunnels of Gundabad; better to rule the cackling masses of thin-armed goblins than to return to shame with his scattered great-orc kin.

Soon enough, though, his prowess in battle led him to a personal audience with the Goblin himself, a small commendation that would doubtless bring another twenty heads to his troop. He would be escorted to the Great Goblin’s presence by three of his battle-lords, and there he would approach the dais and behold the Goblin face-to-face as he disemboweled the king with his claw, the weapon that could not be parted from him. He would immediately challenge the battle-lords, of course, making it abundantly clear that this duel would be for the throne, to ensure that they fought each other as hard as they fought him, to borrow their strength for his own.

Perhaps he would die; but perhaps he would stand again, strong and respected, instead of receiving a weakling’s recognition for the deaths of a few cave salamanders.

He ascended the dais with his heartbeat drumming in his throat—not with fear, for he refused to feel fear, but with anticipation—and he felt the hard scar and muscle in his arm tense around his claw, as if the guards might somehow take it from him. He would catch the Great Goblin at the base of his belly, unfurl the skin and viscera of his abdomen like a banner of war, and he would not pause to gloat as a landslide of intestines gathered around his feet.

One step, another; the battle-lords positioned themselves behind him and around, and drawing back his claw, Azog lifted his face to meet the Great Goblin’s eyes, and saw there an intelligence that burned and perceived and knew. Great golden eyes, solemn and confident, before which Azog was a whimpering cripple on the dwarven burning-fields again, under whose scrutiny even Azog’s own ambition twisted in his grip and became respect. In a moment he would speak, to denounce Azog's murderous intent, and Azog would be torn to pieces, but until the blades fell upon him Azog would hold that gaze as long as he could. Deep those eyes gazed, testing and learning: I know you, the Great Goblin’s eyes said; and, kindling, awful, I admire you.

“I have heard tell,” said the Great Goblin, in a musical voice with a strange timbre, “of a white orc at the gates of Moria, who bearded a dwarven-king in the midst of his army.” Azog’s breath stuttered in his throat. “Of course,” added the Goblin, “you could not be that orc, since he died in glorious victory with the blood of his enemies on his tongue; but my heart tells me,” and he clasped one great hand to his breast, “that you are at least his equal. I would bestow an honor upon you, who cannot be Azog: I would name you my right hand, and keep you close by me, and see for myself if you are the equal in command and valor of your honored shadow, the White Orc.”

Azog left the council in the Great Goblin’s company, all plans of butchery fallen away, knowing now why the Great Goblin was king. His eyes, his knowing eyes; his clever tongue, which defied the heart to disobey it; and something in his face, which recalled an ache to Azog’s breast, like a memory of some lost heritage common to both of them, which imbued his speech with earnest dignity despite the formality of his words.

After this, the Great Goblin kept Azog at his side, a bodyguard and advisor (and, occasionally, executioner). In his most honest moments Azog admitted the Goblin’s likely reasons: keeping his greatest potential rival close by, loading him with responsibility and power until he could neither long for more nor find an idle moment to act. The Great Goblin was wise indeed, and Azog served him well.

The truth, however, was that the Goblin needed no protection from Azog. With every exchange of words, Azog felt his battered pride heal; his master rarely offered material rewards, but praised him often, and after all in his heart Azog was an orc, longing for a worthy ruler. The Great Goblin, with his strange ways, his emotionless justice, his furious passion for the well-being of his subjects—he was indeed a worthy ruler, even if his bearing and his words had not laden Azog with a hollow ache, an unsated longing for something more than he knew.

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“I have heard whispers,” said the Great Goblin, as he walked with his Right Hand through the breederies, “that there is a power rising in the East, drawing our kind from their holes and tunnels of safety into the poisonous sunlight.”

“I too hear these whispers,” acknowledged Azog. The breederies disturbed him; reproduction was not a pleasant experience for orc-kind. The cries of swiftly gestating goblins, their bellies swollen with their litters, cut through the filthy warm air. Ahead lay the batteries of mud-nests in which the orcish embryos would be laid, to grow in mucous pockets to their full size. Azog was surprised, frankly, that he had not been called to the breederies yet; he was strong and tall, the kind of blood that orc-breeders always sought to fill their ranks, and in his previous tunnels he had been ordered down for conjugation at least once every six months.

It was a foul duty, brutal and demeaning, and Azog was only grateful that he had not been one of the rare orcs born with breeding parts, who would live out their lives in this pit of amniotic stench. No, there was no pleasure in conjugation, but there would always be wars-- elves and dwarves and men seeking to root out orc-kind-- and so there must always be breederies, always the beast-like queasy grunting act of humiliation. There was a base tradition of warfare, like the savaging of corpses, in which orcs visited their suffering upon their most loathed enemies, dragging the defeated into the darkest squalor of orc-kind.

Azog has done it, has even been known for it, has been called the Defiler; although no weeping or bleeding of his victims has ever eased the shame of his visits to the breederies. Now, standing beside the Great Goblin, he is ashamed of it.

The Goblin has never ordered him here. Azog realizes that this is a gift.

"I will not heed the whispers," said the Goblin, breaking the silence with a sigh. "It suits me ill to embrace this... embarrassment to our kind, merely to produce an army for some black mist in a distant tower. Do we not have farms to loot, depths to plumb, food enough to grow fat?"

It takes Azog a while to comprehend that the Great Goblin speaks of disobedience.

"I have heard other rumors," the Goblin continued, pacing along the mud-nest batteries, the flickering torchlight marbling his golden skin. "These did not come to my ears on a bat's wing, mind you; I sought long and in terrible danger, and what I have learned..."

Then the Great Goblin told him of the origins of the orcs: not sprung from the earth to cleanse it, as some orcs say, nor twisted from the races of Men by foul misdeeds, as the Free Peoples claim, but shaped with love and mastery by the hands of Morgoth, the great angel-god at the beginning of the world, who made them to survive and to thrive, to fight for great causes and against great pride.

"He is our highest king," said the Great Goblin, "and I fear this Necromancer is all that remains of him; and yet I will disobey him, to protect my own. I hope that he will understand. The legends say that he once defied his own master and remade the world..."

No words would come from Azog's throat. A mad creature, this king he had chosen, who would spit in the face of gods; a king more worthy than Azog had ever known.

"Do you despise me," said the Great Goblin, and in his voice were hidden words, and Azog reached out one great pale hand to touch the uncanny golden smoothness of that skin.

"I have never known any creature like you," said Azog. The Great Goblin shuddered.

"We were not made raw, from clay," he said, though his back did not flinch from Azog's hand, a gesture of staggering trust. "We were crafted from an earlier race, Azog, my brother. We were made from elves, and even to this day we remain tainted with their blood; our bodies and minds recall what they were, before we were remade. Even in the purest lines, such impurities spring up, goblins with golden skin who long for peace and remember the stars."

He had spoken Azog's name.

If there was a new dimension to Azog's longing after that day, if he was haunted by strange half-formed images and touch-memories of skin, it was only a source of pride: that he, like the Great Goblin, carried in his miscolored body some shred of what the elves had always known and the orcs had lost.

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He would have forsaken it all, forgotten every hint of prior glory, and turned himself to the service of his king, had word not come at last that Thorin, the last brat of the line of Thrain, now walked the land between the Mountains and the Sea.

So many years had passed that Azog scarcely remembered his old enemy's face. He had been young at the gates of Moria, a vicious commander swollen with pride (thinking himself invincible, knowing nothing of the dangers and fears that beset true kings and heroes); now he was... not old, but older. The sport of elven heritage that he shared with his king seemed to convey long life, and the two of them had seen generations of goblins spawned and slain, the breederies dissolved and the wombed orc-kin mandated only three or four litters, wandering free for much of their lives...

The knowledge of their nature had changed them utterly. Azog sat in his place at the side of the Great Goblin's throne, and his counsel became wise; the Goblin made and unmade tradition and law, and under the mountains the goblins prospered, unmolested by Men or Elves. So safe grew their borders that other things, dark hungry pitiful things, crept down to hide beneath them, as dogs hide beneath their masters' tables, and ever pressed the growing call of the Necromancer, who craved their service and the dissolution of their hard-won hall. They felt him; they resisted him. They were, in their own way, the heirs of the Elves.

And they slept in one great cavern, the Goblin and Azog back-to-back in armed and splendid slumber, on heaps of hides and furs, alone and unafraid of each other's comfort. They shared a secret that absolved them of weakness; they knew the truth that would someday fulfill Melkor's vision, and they blamed their skin and the ways they used it upon the Elves.

They blamed a great many things on the Elves.

Until the brat Thorin set out upon his quest, and Azog with his hard-won cunning discerned what the dwarfspawn intended. "They will retake Moria, when they are strong," he said, pleading. "They will hunt our brothers under open sunlight, and seize our sacred places for their own; my king, they are greedy thieves with unquiet hands, and they will wake things that should be left to rest."

"And we will rest here, in Gundabad," countered the Great Goblin, "and be silent until they are weak from war, and take them when they are weary."

"You have not fought Dwarves," said Azog, leaning earnestly upon the arm of the Great Goblin's throne. "They are slow to action, but stalwart when roused. If we do not stop this Thorin Oakenshield-- and mind you, king, who it was that took my arm-- we will be drowned in a river of blood, we will kneel before the Necromancer within a decade and beg for his succor."

"Then let the blood of every goblin under the mountain flow, and I will swim that black river to bow my head before the Necromancer, only to keep you safe."

There could be no reply to this, and so Azog was silent, in an agony of misgiving and the premonition of terrible loss.

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Now Azog fell into a black despair that held him for months. The Great Goblin held his distance, knowing what gnawed at him, though he still would not agree to this quest; and Azog, pacing aimlessly through the halls of their kingdom's wealth, in guilt and desperation watching his king's subjects go about their prosperous lives, knew that he must protect their lives' work at any cost.

He would die before he saw the Great Goblin suffer at the hands of the Oakenshield.

He took out forty wargs by night, with their riders; he took platoons of creepers, pike-goblins, brutes with their hammers. It was not difficult. He had only to issue the order, to invoke the Goblin's title. Surely the goblins he left behind him would protect his king; there were enough of them, strong and well-fed, to wash away any attackers with their own blood, to intercept any knife before it met that golden skin.

Then he was riding out from the mountain on the trail of his oldest enemy, in rage and defense of his most beloved king; his heart overflowed with strange high solemn voices from unremembered ages before, pale skin singing in the moonlight, an orc of Gundabad gazing at the stars.