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Lay your head gently down

Chapter Text

The trouble starts when he dies—for good this time. No elven wraiths waiting in the wing to pull him back, no corrupted rings to anchor him, no dark masters pulling the strings. It is a mercy death, in the end, the dark powers of the Nazgul fading from his body and taking his undeath with it.

He is ready for it. He’s been ready for a long time, the years as his enemy’s puppet only making it more so.

In the end, it’s quicker than he thought it would be. Less painful too. He lies his head down on the cracked mud of Mordor soil—already fading—and closes his eyes. What is to be done with him, where he will go upon his final sleep, he can’t say. His only wish is that wherever it is, he can see his family once more.

“Boss?” The voice rouses him from the dark, pulling his mind back from the fog.

He opens his eyes to the sight of an Uruk, unadorned and unmarked. Talion does not know him as one of Sauron’s—the canon fodder made later in the war were made with less intelligence and speech, as punishment for daring to rebel under his banner—but all of his own are dead. Have been for years.

Confusion settles down upon him. This does not feel like death, and this is not the welcome he was expecting.

“What now?” the nameless captain asks, voice only barely above a whisper. It echoes across the barren land and rings in his ears.

“What—who are you?” Talion’s voice rasps in his throat, reigniting a deep pain that he’s come to associate with a cut throat.

“The war is over, the Witch King gone. All the warchiefs are dead. What do we do now?” The Uruk ignores his question, words slowly tumbling out faster, a deep-seated fear showing through.

Talion tries to rise, fails, feels his skin touch the rocks under him in a sort of distant way. The Uruk is not looking at him—there’s a wooden figurine set on the stone behind him, crudely carven. An offering of bloodied flowers sits besides it. A totem of some sort—he knows the tribes worship strange magic, but this is not one he recognises.

“My brothers are dead,” the Uruk continues, reaching a hand out and touching the corners of the wood. Talion can feel the arm go through him distantly, as if it’s something from far away. He stares at the rough skin and mud-encrusted leather and forgets to breathe.

“Please, guide me,” the Uruk implores, and Talion can feel his mind drift away. This is not a captain speaking to a general. It is not an Uruk speaking to a Nazgul. It is not even a vengeful ghost speaking to his killer.

This is a prayer.

Talion doesn’t understand, but there’s a few facts he slowly pieces together as the hour grows long. He’s dead—has to be, can’t fathom any other state of being it would possible for him to be at this point. He is not quite a wraith, can feel the wind and the earth and his own heartbeat in his chest. He’s not a Nazgul any longer. Dead—but not.

There’s an Uruk praying to him.

It feels blasphemous to think so. He is not a pious man, has never had a use for the legends of creation or tales of the valiant dead, but even he can feel the wrongness in the worship of a man. Nevermind that it is an Uruk to do the worship.

He learns—through the hushed confession of the captain kneeling head bowed in the mud—that some of his branded lived through the purges. Grunts, canon fodder, random archers he’d stealthed for health or intel or simply for the pleasure of it. And then there were those who—knowing only tales and the aftermath of his vengeance, with envy and with fear, knelt down in secret and pressed heated words into wood and stone and metal. Blessed weapons with his mark and toasted to the Gravewalker’s favour. His legend grew, even as his mind slowed and the corruption of the Nazgul and the ring took hold.

It grew, maybe because of his corruption and subsequent disappearance from active warfare, into something much more than a man seeking vengeance. It became—gospel.

“Careful now,” one of the priests says, watching sharp-eyed as a few of the grunts move the boxes full of carefully carved bone and sweet-smelling herbs. Standing behind them, out of view, Talion frowns.

These do not act or look like the orc acolytes and priests he is used to. There’s none of the pallor of death, or inky-black tendrils creeping across cracked skin. There’s no chanting, no bowing of arms. There’s just the hushed movement of something illicit, something still in the infant stages of freedom. They are not used to working in the daylight, that is for sure.

They cluster around the priest and his chalk-covered hands, carefully set down their burdens, arranging them with the steadiness of those that have done so before. Talion can’t help but catalogue the items with a sort of desperate disbelief.

More small idols; cloaked figures with hands outstretched, twisted and bent swords cradled in the arms of small trees, caragor heads with painted handprints on their skull. Small weapons, decorative daggers and rings, as finely wrought as possible with orcish hands. Bundles of dried plants that he has a hard time identifying, although they all seem to have the same small, white flowers.

These do not look like the belongings of orcs. They do not quite look like the belongings of men, either. Too rough, too bloodied. But not, Talion can feel with a bone deep knowing, soiled by the hands of darkness. They feel like nothing much of anything, if he is honest. They feel like the dirt beneath his feet and the air whistling through his ghostly hair. Not dark, but certainly not light either.

As the ritual commences, he expects to see something that will change that. A sacrifice of blood, maybe. Something gruesome and nauseating. Something his mind can latch onto and aid him in turning away from this farce.

There is nothing, however. Just words, and prayer, and blessings onto items that hold no meaning to him. It is quick, and quiet, and the only blood spilt is that of the priest, who bleeds his hand into a bowl once the prayers are finished and waits for the milling orcs to line up.

Talion doesn’t understand, at first, not until the first handprint is painted across scarred cheeks. Then he understands too much. This is his mark, of course, and it stirs something in him that had been sleeping for years.

It is a brand, a claiming. It was never meant for gentleness, for anything but the shackles it laid on those who wore it. That was what it was meant for, but that doesn’t mean that’s what it ended up as. In the end, with the powers of the ring so entwined with his own, loyalty was a thing that existed outside of his control. Those who bore his mark were not chained to his side like they might have once been. What it means now, to see it painted freely, he cannot say.

He turns away from the sight and flows back into the shadows, following the tugging at his core until he comes across another group of Uruk. He has been traveling like so for days now, trying to unravel the mystery of his un-death and those that call out to him, but answers are few and far between.

The group he lands in does not see him—none of them ever do, but this time it is evident for more than just turned away faces, for they are all dead. Freshly so, for the stench of rot has not yet set in, but the cause is not readily apparent. It could be they are the leftover result of chaos and panic that befell all who survived Sauron’s defeat, but he could not say for certain.

Talion frowns, and reaches for that spark in his gut that has been pulling him around Mordor in search of those who call his name, but it is resolute. Somewhere, here, there is prayer to be heard.

He walks between twisted limbs and broken blades, searches for signs of worship or ritual, but finds nought but more death and blood. The feeling persists, however. It follows him down aisles of the dead until he finds something, at last.

There’s an Uruk—no surprise, there are only Uruk in Mordor now—dead like the others around him. There’s also a small blade of obsidian clutched in his stiff hands. Nothing he would normally notice, except that the end has been purposefully broken off. Talion can feel his breath catch. Even now the grief remains, something he expects will continue as such until he can die for real.

He crouches down, and without thought picks the blade up.

The Uruk doesn’t have a name. Not just without title, but nameless too. By the end of the war there just wasn’t enough time to name every orc that the vats spat out. Even recycling the twenty or so common Uruk names became stale after a while, and when they were more than likely to just die in a month or two it became more of a waste of time than anything else to attempt to differentiate them.

He didn’t have anything special to tie him to a name, anyways. He wasn’t more bloodthirsty, or more skilled than his brothers. Was not trained to be anything but the fodder he had been made for. He was common, ordinary. Terribly, extremely desperate for anything to set him apart. To make his life worth living, however short it might be.

The whispers in camp, on the road, the way stories were hushed but never stopped—well, it made him feel special, didn’t it, to think of some figure powerful enough to oppose the Witch-King looking down upon him with appraisal. Made him train a little harder, eat a little more. Made him desperate in battle, reaching just a little farther. To be worthy. To live.

They said the Gravewalker would raise those loyal to him out of death. That he would breath life back into those that bore his mark. That if you followed him you were guaranteed something of greatness.

What a temptation that would be, to an Uruk with no name and no future. Is it a surprise he would press his fears into what idols he could find, whisper prayers after each hunt, call upon a deity that did not yet exist for just the chance of survival?

It didn’t much matter if it was true, it was that hope that sustained him through the long nights and even longer battles. Each siege survived, each skirmish finished with lesser and lesser wounds—well, it made him a believer. And when he finally fell, not in a glorious war like they were all told, but running away with their tails between their legs like caragor welps—well, his dying breath wasn’t a plea, or a curse. It was a name.

Talion throws the dagger away, letting it get lost in the mud and muck of the blood-sodden earth. Underneath him the nameless Uruk shakes, gasps, stares at him with wide eyes. He rubs his hands across his tired face, turns away from the gaping orc, and stifles a hysterical laugh into his palms.

This isn’t his first time raising the dead from their beds, but that magic should have been lost to him when the Witch-King fell. And it certainly never felt like this, as if there was a connection being formed between necromancer and undead. He knows this orc now, in ways he didn’t even know his most loyal of captains. From the rolling, grasping maw of his making to the slow, sad end of his death, he knows this creature.

“Gr-Gravewalker,” the Uruk gasps, struggling to sit up. Somehow Talion isn’t surprised to be seen—it makes sense for this one to know him too. He sighs into his cupped hands and leans against the broken rock that juts up from the ground, tired to his non-existent bones.

The orc stumbles to his feet and almost immediately falls to his knees. Talion feels a shiver run its way up his spine, and he stiffens at the hands that grasp at his cloak.

“You came,” the Uruk blubbers, shaking with tremors so strong he can feel them through the white-knuckled grip.

Talion grimaces.

“Not on purpose, you were just very...loud,” he mutters, too tired to try and reclaim his hem.

“I will be loyal, I swear,” the Uruk continues, but Talion isn’t really listening. He’s trying to figure out how his life—and death—came to be like this. How did he go from the captain of the Black Gate to the host of a wraith to an undead necromancer to—this.

“Just—don’t,” he says, once the words reach his ears, “I have no use for loyalty anymore.”

The Uruk blinks up at him, and there’s something in his face that pulls at Talion’s memory, the broken nose maybe, and he can’t help think of another un-branded follower with more loyalty than sense.

“Then—what?” the Uruk asks, and Talion finally frees his cloak from his hands, moving past the kneeling figure so that he can look out at the still-dead. None of them have the spark he can still feel under his ribs, the tether that says, here look, here’s one you can save.

“Live,” he says, after the dust burns his eyes from staring.

There’s silence from behind him, before a huff of breath has him turning. The Uruk stands, still a little wobbly. His expression is confused, somewhat frustrated. He looks like he’s trying to reach for anger.

“That’s shrahk, and you know it. Living means nothing in Mordor, ‘pecially when you got no name. I might as well be a slave for as little worth I got!”

Talion stares. It’s not an un-truth, he knows. Uruk were made for war, for purpose. They know death like an old friend, and living means little to them. Their life or others’. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t find the sentiment slightly pitiful.

He, who has too much life left. Whose death carries on without end. And here he is trying to instruct someone else in the usage of what little they have. He doesn’t have the right. Doesn’t have the desire, if he’s truthful. It was a throwaway comment so he could leave quicker. So he could retreat somewhere with less watchful eyes.

“And what would you want, besides the life I have already given you back?” he asks, pausing.

The Uruk frowns, scratches at the blood still caked into his skin, and eyes him as if suddenly aware that all that Talion has given can just as easily be taken.

“...a name. Give me a name and I’ll live my days like I’m worth something.”

Here’s the thing. Talion was ready to die. Had been ready for a long time. He didn’t want to cling to the dredges of life like some sort of shade. He’d given up all those things—the fighting, the bloodshed, the vengeance—when he’d died a second time. Before that, if he’s honest.

Whatever magic keeps him here, in the blood-soaked mud of Mordor, he wants nothing to do with it.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. He’s known that for a while—his life and his death are not his own to determine. It’s always been something, a revenge, a justice, a moral quest to stop those who would otherwise ride roughshod over the lands he had once loved. And, of course, there was Shelob to prod him into staying.

But at the end, he’d been free. He’d almost even felt it, the gentle breeze of the lands he’d been born to. Seen the rising peaks of the cities of his forefathers. He’d imagined himself discarding his armour, his weapons, putting aside his violence.

And yet here he is.

The first thing he can think of when the Uruk says his plea, is that in all the time he’s lived and died and lived again, he’s never had to name something. Ioreth was the one to pick a name for Dirhael, and it’s not like he’d had much desire to name the caragors and graugs he’d tamed.

Once again, the resemblance to another dead Uruk flashes through his mind, but even if he wanted to name something after an old ally, it wouldn’t be Ratbag. But maybe he can hold something of the past, however small. Not to mention he’d rather not stoop to an orcish name as his first.

“...Ratcatcher,” he decides. A compromise, of sorts. Not quite orcish, not quite mannish. And if it’s good enough for the cats in the fortresses of his youth, than it’s good enough for one not-dead Uruk. Or at least, he hopes so. Who knows what sort of criteria Uruk have for namings, although with ones such as Ratbag he’s not too worried. Nor does he really care.

“T-Thank you,” the newly named Ratcatcher gasps, but Talion has tired of this charade, and whatever feeble nostalgia kept him from leaving disappears into the smog filled air.

The pull of prayer tears him away from the now-cold battlefield, leaving behind only a dazed Uruk and a name.

Maybe if Talion had any sense, or had paid attention to the legends of his childhood, he would know the power in a name. Would know that the giving of such a thing can be as powerful as a brand itself. Would have, maybe, known not to hand it out when he does not wish for his legend to grow.

For grow it does. And where there were priests and prayer and idols before, now there is a prophet. Now there is truth, and names, and the image of a tired face inset with burning flames for eyes.

Death has come back to Mordor, and he raises up the worthy. Fear the footsteps he walks, and praise the hand he beckons. He will bring us up out of the dark.

The flowers start to get to him. They are familiar, in a way that says he should know them, if only he’d spent more of his existence concerned by things such as flora. Even the herbology knowledge from his time as a Ranger is muted by decades of death. What use is knowing poisons and remedies and tonics when he cannot even drink them? When most of them do not grow in Mordor?

The last plant he had to pay any heed of was Carnan, and before that it was Lithariel’s poison. Neither of those things flowered.

And yet.

He sees the buds in the shadow of the rocks he passes by, in the divots of his footsteps after the rains, painted across banners and carved into stone by those that still whisper his name in the dark. More than once they are offered under the shadow of some idol or statue, bloodied either by the hands of the hunt or the Uruk’s own flesh.

Sometimes, when the rituals and prayer are over and the faithful leave, he touches the delicate petals, watching them curl like smoke in his palm. They smell faintly sweet, like honeyed-dew, and something about the scent is comforting even though Talion has no reason to be comforted.

They are—he is also extremely confused by this—extremely powerful. He’s seen more than one injured Uruk chew on the thin petals and walk away hours later as if untouched. He’s even seen one of the alchemists grind the whole plant, stalk and all, in a mix of caragor blood and sulfur, into a paste that once spread on a rotten limb calmed the infection until there was nothing but clean bone.

And they appear to be his. Or at least his worshippers (cult, his mind can’t help think) feel that they are his. Whatever the case, they are not something he’s seen in Mordor before. Not so surprising then, that their presence is taken as some sort of omen. As a symbol.

Like the blades that are lovingly placed at the base of trees, or the chalk and blood hand-marks painted onto cloth and skin and iron.

“This if your fault,” he says lowly to the scuttling spiders clinging to the walls of the cave he has found himself in. Even here there are flowers. There is also a huddling group of Uruk and Olog around a wet-smelling fire, dressed in rags and obviously once slaves, but he pays them little head. None of them are whispering his name, not tonight.

He follows the hollow light further inwards, ignores the caragor-eyes that follow him as he passes, ducks under the silver threads of spider-silk.

Shelob does not come to him as a woman. It would be worthless, he suspects. A pretty face does little for him now. She is not quite spider, either. Some mix of the two, where her size is not so large and her skin is not so fair.

“Talion,” the spider-queen says, many-jointed limbs ticking in an unsettling fashion. There is thread in her hair, in her hands, draped over her chitinous body. She lounges, as much as someone can with as many legs as eyes, which is to say, many.

“You knew,” he says. There is no question in his mind that she knew, of course. Shelob has proven her knowing many a time over.

“I knew,” she agrees, “I saw them ride under your banner, I saw you fall to another. And I saw you rise again.”

He pauses at the foot of her rocky kingdom. He feels rage kindle in his throat, although he knows it is futile. What does it matter that she saw his undoing?

“What is this?” he asks instead, sweeping grandly outwards. He means himself, of course, but also the Uruk outside with white-flower scars and broken blades. He means the prayers and the namings and the power he should not have.

“Fate,” Shelob says, and disentangles herself from her throne of rock and silk, “You held the minds of a people for decades. Gods have been made with less.”

“Gods are not made,” he hisses, stomping forward.

“Are they not? Am I not the god of my realm? Was not Sauron the god of his? It does not matter that we were made from earth and clay or shadow and death. That we had masters or mothers.”

Shelob pulls herself up, so that part of her body is now suspended in a net of white. Her head—what he can see of it through the black silk-hair and the glow of her multitude of eyes, does not lift higher than his own.

“The Valar are not the only ones who create, Talion. Sauron was not the only one who wished to destroy. And in the end, it was not the workings of gods that toppled his empire, but that of men and hobbits and elves and dwarves. Power means nothing to fate. And fate chose you.”

“No, I am not…” he presses his palms into his eyes, tries to ease the ache building in his skull, “I wished to die.”

“All things must die,” Shelob agrees, “but you are no longer a thing. Ideas are fleeting, hard to grasp. But they live on when all things mortal fade.”

He shakes his head. He cannot think, cannot understand the words that are echoing through the cavern. Perhaps Shelob can tell—no doubt she can, he is starting to think there is little that can hide from her eyes. Perhaps there is nothing that can.

She reaches out with one clawed hand and lifts his head from its cradle.

“Come, let me give you a gift to ease the pain. There are things that have happened that you would once have died for,” she says, and this a familiar situation. Him looking for answers, her providing in riddles and visions and just enough truth to ensnare. The form of a spider suits her.

“Come, there is a king in Gondor and the people call his name.”

Chapter Text

Rumours start popping up about activity in Mordor almost as soon as Aragorn takes the crown. It is not so surprising; those fell things that survived crawling back to the land they came from. The corruption has receded, it’s true, but Mordor still stands a dark and forboden place.

So he doesn’t think much of it at first. There is plenty to do in greener lands as it is; taking care of the wounded and preparing to set the battle-forged alliances into writing. He has documents to read, men to assign, a whole slew of stately and administrative duties to uphold.

And there’s the wedding, as well. He will not lie and say that doesn’t take up most of his thoughts during the day, and most of his nights as well. There’s the sort of disbelieving happiness every time he thinks of it.

So it takes a few months before he truly has any energy to spare to their borders and the reports slowly coming in. It’s not so much an oversight on his part, he feels, considering the reports themselves say very little and even Gandalf doesn’t seem concerned about what little they do say.

That is, until one of their scouts comes face to face with what they’ve all been sure was just the slowly dying remnants of Sauron’s army.

Talion hangs back as the scuffle starts, watching with a keen eye as the men attempt to fight off the snarling Uruk. Bad luck for both groups: the Uruk are stronger, but there’s more men, and the terrain makes a messy battle either way.

The men are desperate, obviously having not expected any opposition in this area, and it’s true it has none of the usual Uruk markings. No heads on spikes, no bloody iron reinforcements. Not even a camp of any kind. Just a cave and a small, almost unnoticeable white hand print at its entrance.

The Uruk on the other hand, are less desperate but more frantic. They could run, but that would mean giving up their territory to whoever—or whatever—feels like taking over.

So he sits and watches as both groups dance around each other, taking hits but no real casualties. Part of him is conflicted: these are his Uruk, but also he has never truly given up his humanity and so part of him is already siding with the scouting party.

An arrow goes flying through the air and he waves a hand, diverting the trajectory at the last moment so that it hits the rock instead of an Uruk’s head, and hums in thought. He has learned much these past few nights, getting used to his supposed godhood, but he’s not sure if any of his newly acquired powers would help here.

He might be able to force the Uruk to stand down—but then the humans would kill them. And there’s no guarantee that all of them are faithful enough to be resurrected.

He’s debating just leaving the whole lot of them to fate—he doesn’t need to baby Uruk, after all, and he still isn’t sure if he’s ever sad to see one die—when the choice is taken out of his hands.

“Enough!” Ratcatcher yells, atop his white painted caragor. From where he sits above the rest of the fighting, sun at his back on the edge of the canyon, there’s a moment where he looks as otherworldly as Talion feels these days.

Ratcatcher has upgraded his wardrobe, it seems, wearing patchwork leather and cloth robes that are liberally threaded with small wooden trinkets. Almost all of his skin is painted in some manner or other—the usual handprint, but also other symbols and designs that are not as familiar to Talion. He’s wearing a hood, as well, completely detached from the rest of his clothing.

The staff he holds is almost an afterthought.

“Enough! Let them have the valley, we are called east,” he calls again, not even waiting for the Uruk below to respond before retreating into the horizon.

The men startle, but the Uruk do not hesitate in their retreat. As one, they turn their backs and make for the hills, scattering as they do. Talion waves his hand again to protect from more arrows and watches with narrow eyes as the Uruk make their escape.

He’d not paid much attention to his first resurrection, too busy with other affairs, but he’s suddenly regretting it. He could follow and see what trouble exactly is in store—but perhaps part of him is reluctant to make peace with the truth.

He turns instead to the humans.

Kearin isn’t too sure what to make of the orcs’ retreat—they’d appeared better geared and in better health then the remnants they’d fought at the border—but he doesn’t look too closely at it either. Good fortune for him and his men, tired as they are.

“Careful,” he warns to the others, “the beasts have likely laid traps up ahead.”

The area is rocky and mostly barren. A few struggling shrubs or lichen stubbornly refuse to die, but otherwise there is not much else that dots the landscape but dirt and dust. The cave the orcs have been guarding is the only shelter for miles yet.

They continue, cautiously now in case of ambush, through the narrow valley leading back to the opening, and Kearin tamps down on the urge to hurry out of the shade of the cliff edges. His back itches to be surrounded by highground every which way, especially with orcs in the hills, but they need the cave if they hope to have any sort of defensible camp for the night. At least there they will be higher up, and with only one way in and out.

They make their way to the entrance without any trouble, and he carefully steps forward into the darkness. There’s the remnants of a fire far back into the cave, but otherwise not much light to go on.

He grits his teeth and holds up a hand to stop the group, waiting until his eyes adjust. The men mutter quietly, and he knows a few are only just staying upright through will alone. They will have to take the time to make sure none of their wounds are likely to turn feverish.

He blinks until he can just make out the cave walls and then continues in. It is blessedly cool inside, away from the sun, and although there is signs of habitation here, he doesn’t smell the stench of orc filth. There’s only the slight damp of cave dew and burnt wood from the fire.

“Spread out, let us be careful that there are no surprises waiting for us here, but those wounded badly should rest now,” he says quietly, and without a word they obey. Trained in the chaos of the war, they know better than to argue.

One of the scouts—Adrienne, their hotly-contested female ranger—quickly sets to re-lighting the fire, and soon Kearin is able to fully view the cave.

He kicks over a strange wooden doll and frowns. They’ve come across more than a few orc camps—not counting the ones left over from the war—and he’s not sure he’s seen one quite like this before.

There’s a group of hide bedrolls stacked in one corner, near to what looks like a wooden chest, and a bunch of miscellaneous items and weapons scattered around. But what’s really odd is the covered shape in the back, taking up most of the far wall.

“Dargan,” he snaps, nodding over to it as one of the lesser wounded men looks up, “help me with this.”

The man—boy, really, but they seem to get younger every year—hurries over and steps to his side. Kearin unsheathes his sword and uses the tip of it to slip under the dark cloth, gesturing for the boy to prepare himself for anything that might jump out.

It takes very little to knock the cloth off—having been thrown over rather hastily, he expects—but he’s not quite sure what he expected to have been under it. Rotting meat, maybe, bodies bloated in death and piled on some rack like pork left to dry.

Instead there sits a statue of a man, half finished, and carved out of bone white wood.

“Valar wept, what in the world is that?” He hears someone mutter behind him, but he doesn’t turn. The statue depicts a hooded human, one hand slightly outstretch while another holds a broken sword. A lot of care has obviously gone into its making, even if it looks somewhat unskilled in execution.

“Something stolen, you wager?” Dargan asks, moving closer. Kearin frowns, lowering his sword.

“Maybe, although...” he hums slightly, casting an eye once more around the cave. Strange artifacts, strange orcs. Their leader appeared to be ceremoniously dressed, and mentioned something about being called east.

Together with whatever this statue is—stolen goods, heretical idol—he doesn’t much like the look of things.

“Let’s get this all written down and a raven sent quickly,” he says, instead of the mounting questions at the tip of his tongue. “Let the higher ups figure it out.”

Ratcatcher knows he’s changed. Not just the physical—the blue-glow eyes and the faintly visible handprint that lightens the side of his cheek—but the less obvious things too.

Not that long ago he was destined to die as a sack of flesh, shielding those much better than he. Meant to be one in a thousands, not one of a kind.

Now here he sits, at the head of the pack, respected and heard. It’s a miracle, almost as impossible as his resurrection was. It is rare for Uruk to rise above their stations, and even rarer for them to do so without bloodshed.

But the faithful know, when they see him, who he is and what he represents. He doesn’t need to scrape and steal and kill for his life. He just needs to follow his gut, and the dreams he mostly remembers, and the blue-fire eyes that haunt his every waking hour.

“Wha’d’about the idol?” one of the Uruk asks, moving to flank him. The others are keeping a close eye on the surroundings, but he can feel their attention anyway.

“We can make a new one,” he says, although he does regret not being able to bring it with them. Hours had been spent in its making, and in the end, it was only ever half-finished.

“It’s done, then?” the Uruk asks, scratching at his nose in thought. The others behind stir slightly, eyes swinging his way. Ratcatcher smothers a sigh.

“Not quite, but close enough that we should return anyways. The Necropolis needs to settle before we can truly branch out and build outposts,” he says slowly. As much as he feels like a large net of sentries, or at least of border camps like the one they just left, would help secure the area for his people—well, who is he to argue with the force driving him?

“We must thank the Gravewalker anyways, for protecting us in the fight,” he mutters, nudging his caragor faster. He’d felt the presence, although not enough to truly see his god’s form in the shadows, but even that little told him the luck they had in surviving wasn’t by chance.

The Uruk perk up, excited by an excuse to hunt. Ratcatcher feels his hand inch itself towards his belt where the obsidian dagger rests. They’ve done a lot—learned a lot—in these past few moons, but that doesn’t mean uncertainty doesn’t tug at his mind. They are still only a few Uruk in the grand scheme of things, a handful of worthy or faithful. Mordor will turn them to dust if they’re not careful.

The stop for the night at an outcropping that’s been carefully surrounded in grave blossoms, and he guiltily lets his caragor rest by the small stream feeding them. They have a lot of ground to cover, and although he is not used to caring for the animals—well, the Gravewalker was said to be fond of them.

“Wha’do you think the humans were doing this far in?” someone asks as a fire is lit, and he leans his staff into the ground in thought.

“The war wasn’t that long ago. Probably now that the Witch-King is dead, they’re thinking of reclaiming the land,” he finally answers. There’s a few hisses and grumbles, and he bites at the skin of his thumb as the group settles slowly. Men looking to reclaim land are a problem he’s not sure how to deal with.

He’s a priest, not a general.

There’s been talk of one of the surviving branded making trouble in the north-east, and he wonders if he’d be able to convince him to their side. The branded are always difficult to predict: either faithful, or bitter and resentful.

But still, it might be worth it to try, since the branded are also always stronger than the average Uruk, and most have some tactical knowledge. They would make good generals, if they can be persuaded.

There is a connection there anyway, between the branded and the Gravewalker, that in Ratcatcher’s mind should not be ignored. At one point they were chosen, and perhaps they could be chosen again.

He rubs at his cheek where the faint lines of the Gravewalker’s hand burned him out of death, and smiles. Maybe if he finds one of the branded, he’ll finally see the damn man again too.

Talion follows his Uruk—whether they are small groups of worshipers or single hermits moving ever-closer to the centre of Mordor. Whispers slowly trickle in—of a fortress, of a camp, of a church of faithful.

It worries him. The talk speaks of something bigger than he’s willing to face right now. And a fortress is ill news so soon after the war.

Uruk are not naturally inclined to building homes, after all. They do not group together unless under the banner of someone more powerful.

So he follows, answering call after call. A few times he—mostly by accident—resurrects a corpse or two, but he makes sure that those newly risen don't see him. Shelob says his efforts are futile, that his faithful will see him in what they wish and that the only way to control it is to actively be the one to which they listen to...but he can’t.

He has not stopped longing for his peace, even now that he is supposedly god over a warfaring people. He does not want to speak to them.

Maybe that’s why it takes so long for him to realise what his first-risen—Ratcatcher—is up to. It is not a fortress they are building—it is a city.

He stands on a hill overlooking the still unfinished construction and gapes. Larger than even the warchief fortresses of the war, it sprawls out in every which way. Made out of wood and hide tents, or hastily erected buildings, it certainly doesn’t look impressive in build—but in sheer scope…

The only thing made out of metal is the walls, finished first by the looks of it and surrounding a good portion of the rest. He can see Uruk going to and fro, carrying scrap metal towards where a group of Machine tribe Uruk have set up a smelter. In another corner some sort of market has been set up, stalls of meat and grog and other things he can’t see from this distance. He sees both Feral, Slaughter and Marauder among them.

There’s what looks to be a barracks, though it is smaller than he is used to seeing in fortresses. But maybe that is just because of the size of the rest of the city. The practice yard stretches all along one side of the wall and interconnects with what look to be caragor pens. He sees Warmonger tribe Uruk barking orders at a group of defenders in one of the fields.

Near the centre is a round building made out of wood, where a group of Mystic Uruk are gathered. He even sees Terror and Dark tribe members scattered about.

“I thought the tribes were dead,” he mutters, rubbing his eyes.

“There are always survivors in any purge. And now they can recruit new members without fear of retribution,” a voice says near his ear, and he flinches.

Shelob comes to him two-legged this time, perhaps simply because the many-limbed-form takes up so much space and there is only so much hill here. Still, her face is not quite right—eight eyes and no nose. Her mouth stretches impossibly wide.

“That was quick,” he responds, eyeing her. She looks healthier, despite the inhumanity. Perhaps being out of the shadow of the Witch-King has helped. “How are they getting new recruits, though? Even with the survivors of the war, there shouldn't be this many.”

Shelob hums.

“Uruk are not born, they are made. But there are more natural species of orc and goblin in these hills. Some that have hidden for generations while these wars were fought. It takes but a touch of, hmm, interference to elevate a lowly orc into an Uruk.”

Talion blinks.

“They’re making more?”

Yörliç follows Uncle nervously, weaving between large and somewhat strange looking orcs with patchwork armour and clothes. She can barely hear his mutterings over the loud roar of people trying to haggle and bargain all at the same time, moving in somewhat discordant streams. There’s the smell of spiced meat and something pungent to the side that she carefully doesn’t look at. She has heard of what they put in their alcohol here and wishes no part of it.

“Keep up,” Uncle snaps, one hand on the hidden blade at his side. Their guide doesn’t seem fazed, continuing to push through the crowd and to some distant destination.

Yörliç swallows and speeds up, part of her wishing she was young enough to dig her hands into the back of Uncle’s jerkin. But if she was that young she would not be here.

Eventually they make their way to a somewhat quieter part of the market, seemingly filled with less popular stalls. She sees trinkets, tools, what passes for craftsmen and workers for orcs. There’s even a stall that has rolls and rolls of parchment lined up, although the merchant behind it seems fast asleep.

They stop at one near the back, half covered by some faded cloth attached to the wall of a nearby building. The orc behind it is covered in gold and brass, to the point where it is almost impossible to see the wide smile he flashes their way. His table is covered in strange looking items—small statues, jewelry, even to her surprise scarves and wraps and other, delicate- looking cloth.

“Ah! You have made it!” the orc cries when they get closer, hands thrown out. “Come, come, we have business to discuss.”

Their guide—a tall and spiky looking orc with narrow eyes and a set of teeth that first reminded her of the large marrow sharks—snorts.

“Not before ya pay me, Kûrug,” he snaps, thrusting out a hand. The merchant doesn’t even blink.

“Oh but I’m sure I’ve already paid you, dear Pash.”

Their guide simply stares, one hand curling slightly so that the large metal claws affixed glint in the sun.

“...ah, yes, payment,” the merchant sighs, rustling through his many bags.

Yörliç warily steps to the side so that she is further away from “Pash” and eyes Uncle. He seems unfazed by everything, as normal, but she can see the sheen of sweat on his dark skin.

If they were not desperate, she knows, they would not be here. But the crops are burnt, the trade routes guarded by Western men, and as winter approaches fishing won’t be enough to sustain them. Those that were able to retreat back to the capital might be able to recover, but the price of losing the war has hurt more than just her clan’s pride.

The merchant hands over some sort of pouch that their guide takes with a sniff, before nodding. His eyes cut towards them as he shoves it into a belt.

“I’ll be back at sundown, don’t die,” he says before turning and melting back into the crowds. Yörliç swallows again.

“Well, now that the pests are dealt with, please, come join me,” the merchant says, holding an arm out and lifting some cloth in the back of the stall. It had been hiding the entrance of the building the stall was leaned up against, and Yörliç waits until Uncle slowly ducks under before following.

The inside is dry and smells somewhat of sawdust, and she can see that most of the furniture is half-finished or otherwise makeshift in design, but it seems functional. There are shelves of what she assumes to be battlefield salvage and other junk, as well as newer made products not ready for sale outside. The merchant brings them towards a table that holds a large leather-bound book and sits behind it.

Yörliç thumbs at her pendant nervously. The petals of the white flowers are comforting, even if they do not have the age of some of her other worship-totems. It keeps her grounded as she listens to the merchant and Uncle talk. She’s to be his apprentice, after all, and this is maybe the most important deal they’ve ever had to make before.

“Now then, you said you had items recovered from the battlefields…”

Talion steps quietly through the city. Everywhere he looks he sees the telltale symbol of a broken sword, or a bloody hand, or a cloaked figure. He can feel every single worshiper like an ember in his gut, and he hadn't realised before how much it effects him. Surrounded as he is, he feels stronger, more present. It takes no effort at all to hide his presence completely, to the point where he passes by Ratcatcher and his priests and gets no reaction.

From somewhere nearby he hears the beating of a war drum, but the song seems to have been altered to fit a city not at war. Still aggressive, still fast-paced and hair-raising—but not quite so hurried. At certain points it almost sounds like the drummer goes off beat to improvise.

There’s some sort of food being cooked in a large, central pot, and for once it doesn't smell of rotting caragor and burnt flesh. Seemingly with no need to feed an army, even Uruk will find time to season meat properly.

And despite the fact that everything seems half-made or unfinished, he knows the speed that Uruk can build. They used to tear down and remake fortresses in the span of weeks at certain points of the war. And yet, there’s evidence that this isn’t a completely new camp—some of the buildings look months old at least.

It becomes somewhat more obvious when he notices a few of the plainer clothed Uruk with brands on their forehead. He’d almost missed the presence of the slaves because they don’t look like slaves any longer. And it is obvious they aren’t slaves any longer either. True, some appear to be working as labourers or workers, but he sees some in armour along the walls or behind wooden stalls in the market. They have clothing and weapons and look, for the most part, like any other Uruk.

“How’d this happen?” he asks the spider following his steps. He means why did so much change, and how, and what it means for Mordor as a whole.

“Orcs were not always corrupted under a banner of darkness. Some of what you see is just a natural regression to their roots. Some, however, is your influence. You dream of the cities of your youth—where every man at least had the promise of equality. You dream of the flowers you gave your wife and the scent of her hair. You dream of a good hunt, an honorable fight. Uruk were made to be ruled, and there are those among them who know your desires through the connection you share. It spreads,” Shelob says, voice melodic and unconcerned. “Just as my daughters know my will, so too do your faithful.”

Talion shakes his head.

“This is not my will,” he refutes, snapping an arm out to where a group of Uruk—from different tribes—appears to be playing some sort of dice game on an empty barrel. One of them is obviously cheating, and it quickly devolves into a brawl.

“Well, they are still Uruk,” Shelob says wryly.

Talion just shakes his head again.

Nearby a giant Olog is carrying wooden slabs over to where a building in mid-construction waits, and there’s an Uruk idly shredding white petals sitting on the end of one of the planks. He narrows his eyes and follows.

“I suppose it is not so surprising that you would have trouble adjusting, considering your human background. But is it truly so different from the wraith-bound, or the Nazgul?” Shelob asks, still a step behind. Talion isn’t sure exactly why the spider has been following him, nor does he really care. She’s a good source of information, and the only one he can really say is any sort of company.

“This is nothing like that,” he mutters, somewhat sourly.

He follows the trail of flowers until he catches up with the Olog and his lazy passenger. The building they stop at is one of the many squat, awkward looking storefronts built off of the market with wide open windows cut in the front. There’s no glass, so it looks a little like an open-air gazebo currently.

Sitting on one of the ledges of the window is a girl, and he pauses.

“Oh, hmmm,” Shelob hums, tapping one long finger to her lips. “The Easterlings do move fast.”

Talion speeds up, bypassing the Olog and his burden to peer closer. She’s dressed in colourful wraps and gold jewelry, and looks altogether out of place in the dust and dirt of the orc city. From behind, an older man comes out of the building and says something to her in a language Talion doesn’t understand. She closes the book she’d been writing in and nods, picking up a bag at her feet.

“...” Talion turns to Shelob.

“Is it so strange that they would turn to their allies in the war once it was lost?” She asks, moving forward to inspect the girl further. Shelob is a good foot taller than her, and as she bends to peer into the girl’s eyes her hair cascades down, creating a river of black silk threads.

Talion turns around with a grunt, some part of him still human enough to feel discomfort at the inhuman sight.

“The Easterlings held no love for the Uruk army. They barely had anything to do with one another,” he refutes, eyes landing on the Uruk with the white flowers. He’s currently arguing with the Olog, shredded petals forgotten.

There’s something about him that seems familiar.

“Indifference is better than hostility,” Shelob says. “They would find no allies in the west.”

Talion doesn’t respond, he’s too busy trying to place the Uruk’s face in his memory. It is hard, he has seen many of them in his many lifetimes and they all start bleeding together eventually.

“Oh my, you might want to take a look at this darling,” her voice floats out from behind, and he startles.

Turning back he sees the two humans talking quietly while an Uruk with golden armour stands nearby. In his hands is a small bone statue that Talion recognises as depicting himself. A Gravewalker idol. The girl nods and passes over a leather bundle. The Uruk smiles and hands over the statue.

“Looks like you might not be just a god to beastly things, anymore,” Shelob says wryly.