Naturally, given where the Other Gravewalker had come from there were differences - a whole host of differences. Much more striking than that were the similarities the two men shared between them: the Tark Ranger and his double.
It had rattled Ratbag to start with. No real surprise or revelations there; most things did. But it wasn’t limited to the way he looked: it was also there in the timbre and pitch of his voice, a duplicate of Talion’s to the very syllable and clear to hear the first time he….that is, the Other One spoke.
Before that, Ratbag had wondered if he was capable of it. Oh, he made sounds, certainly. From time to time he’d utter soft grunts of pain when he fell foul of an attacker, as might happen during one of his gruelling sparring sessions in the training ring; otherwise he might cry out in anguish in the night, when the Alchemist and his Uruks were making - whatever sport they made with him. But other than that, he remained as silent as the grave. He didn’t speak.
Perhaps Ratbag wished, or rather hoped that meant he couldn’t, Orcish alchemy being not so much a seamless blend of dark arts and science as it was a profane hybrid of the two. The process itself had a lot in common with the way the Alchemist had blended human blood-stock together with whatever…additional materials…he’d used in the splicing together of the Other One.
Draining the necessary fluids out of one of the many corpses Talion left behind him in timely fashion before the damn thing dematerialized in a flash of blue light and vanished, or spontaneously disintegrated, or did whatever the shrakh the blasted things did, had been the most troublesome aspect of the whole affair. That was the part that’d taken effort, and time. After that it had been a straightforward enough case of: chuck the necessary ingredients in a standard Uruk-spawning tank; wait for the light of two full moons and then - voila! Job’s a good ‘un.
A new breed of warrior! It was going to change the whole course of the War, what he’d done, the Alchemist said.
So, given where he’d come from with any luck the Other Gravewalker had ended up only looking like Talion to a wholly alarming degree. And perhaps that meant that on the inside, where it counted, he was - not.
As it turned out there was little enough chance of that happening, because here was another thing the Other One and Talion had in common: the duplicate had also somehow acquired his share of Talion’s uncommonly bad luck.
Ever since he heard whispered talk about the work the Alchemist had been doing, about the existence of a ‘nother Gravewalker!’ that he’d somehow conjured into being, the ever-curious Ratbag hadn’t been able to resist trying to find out more. And so for the past two weeks or so he’d been mooching, in the Alchemist’s vicinity. Naturally an Uruk like Ratbag - undersized; scrawny; in possession of few, if any, of the traditionally-valued Orcish attributes - would never warrant a proper role or ranking among the Alchemist’s troops. In spite of it he had still managed to forge a loose attachment between himself and the Orcs of the Alchemist’s encampment, chiefly by keeping to the outskirts; by no means the first time he’d scrounged a living from doing this just kind of thing. When he could he ran errands for the others. Fetched and carried. Brought the water, and so on. In the absence of the human slaves who once had served them, so long as he kept his head down, Ratbag’s fellow Orcs and Uruks were finding themselves inclined to be more or less tolerant of him, at least for the time being. He remained on the periphery, which meant that so far he’d only caught glimpses of the Other Gravewalker from a distance. That best views he’d been able to get of him had revealed that like Talion, the Duplicate was tall and broad-shouldered; also that he appeared to be a normal human Man. So far…..that had been about the extent of it.
That night it was quiet in the Alchemist’s camp. A misty rain had been falling all day. There hadn’t been any particular weight, or volume of water in the air at any given moment, and yet everything was saturated. The outsides of the Uruks’ tents were wet, and all of the tack and kit. The surface of the boggy ground - running with streaming rivulets of it. Every Orc who could do had long since gotten under cover or gone indoors. As the evening drew in the pin-points specks of moisture suspended in the air began to refract and reflect around the handful of lanterns that had been left to light the outside of the encampment, surrounding each one with a deceptively warm, comforting glow.
There was nothing warm or comforting about being outdoors on such a night however, and so Ratbag seized his chance: seeing as just for once out there it was going to be just the Other One, and him.
In one of the old slave cages was where they kept the Duplicate. Ratbag crept across the campground, approaching cautiously at first, although the Other One gave little sign of being aware of him.
As Ratbag said, he hadn’t really had a chance to look this closely before: to try his hand at spot-the-difference so to speak. It was obvious to him from the outset, connoisseur that he was when it came to this particular subject, that there wasn’t a great deal in it. The new one had been roughed up a bit, but most of the damage looked superficial. That stood to reason: the Alchemist had created him as a fighter, which meant that all his days were spent in combat, in the duelling pits. And he was filthy-dirty, too. The hair, and the scruff of his beard were a little longer, and all-in-all he looked even less well-cared for than the Ranger proper - which, given the state Talion was in the habit of frequently getting himself into, Ratbag would’ve barely believed was possible. This one might’ve been carrying a shade less weight and muscle than the original - but that could well have been because of the way he was sitting there dressed only in a ragged slave-tunic and set of leggings, without a scrap of the armour or outer clothing that might otherwise have provided some illusory bulk, to cover him.
“Like any other, fresh out the vats, he’ll have to earn his rank!” - or so the Alchemist had said. To garner improved weaponry and amour, the Other Gravewalker, like any Orc, was going to have to prove himself in combat.
Up until this point the Duplicate hadn’t been doing very much in the way of proving himself in combat however. He seemed oddly recalcitrant. In the ring he tended to spend most of his time knocked on his arse and getting shouted at: ‘on your feet you shrakhin’ coward! Get up!’
Ratbag squatted down in the muck and stared at the Alchemist’s creation. Far outweighing the few small differences was the resemblance, and that was striking. He’d been sitting, quietly mulling things over when, without any warning -
“You’re wasting your time, Orc,” the Doppelganger said. “I’m not him.”
It was only his prior assumption, of the Other One not being able to speak that had Ratbag nearly jumping out of his skin. It wasn’t as if it bothered him to hear Talion’s voice - with the exact same accent, intonation, phrasing - coming out of this second-rate imitation of him. In shock and surprise he heard himself snapping back his answer:
“What’s it to you, Pinkskin?”
The Doppelganger sat up a little straighter in his cell and at the same time tried to shake his hair loose from where it was hanging plastered, soaking wet, across his face. “I only meant that by coming here you’ve had a wasted effort,” he explained, his tone patient and perfectly reasonable, “because I’m not him.”
Ratbag found he didn’t have much in the way of a ready reply to that, and after moment’s hesitation, the Man added, a bit uncertainly -
“You are Ratbag, and not some other Orc, aren’t you?”
“What if I am?” Ratbag snarled. “What’s it to you?”
“Well, if you’re Ratbag, then I believe I know a little about how you feel about your Ranger,” the Doppelganger told him, “and if you thought he’d been - caught by Orcs, like this -“
“Talion would never let himself be caught by Orcs,” Ratbag cried, bristling with indignation. “He’d die before he’d let that happen! The Ranger’s a much better Man than you!”
The duplicate absorbed the insult just the same way he’d take a punishing swipe with the flat of a blade across his back when he was in the training ring: by making barely any indication he’d noticed it, much less that it might have had the slightest impact on him. He just meekly looked down at the ground for a minute.
“Your loyalty to your friend does you credit,” he continued, following his dainty little pause, “but if he were to have been caught, I can only imagine how anxious you’d be, knowing how - “ he broke off and regarded Ratbag with a sympathetic look, full of understanding - “how very fond you are, of him.”
Ratbag held himself very, very still, yet on the inside his thoughts went racing and his gut and stomach swooped and lurched dreadfully, as if they were turning themselves inside out. The Doppelganger was bluffing - he had to be. He was trying to get a rise out of Ratbag; getting back at him for that ‘better man’ crack by needling him, that was what had to be going on here, for sure -
“But does that mean he knows?” in Ratbag’s utter agitation the words just blurted themselves out inadvertently. “Does Talion know how Ratbag feels about him?”
The Other One’s lips twitched slightly. A muscle jumped in one bruised and bloodied cheek. “Not to worry, Orc,” he told him. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Perhaps it was the easy familiarity with which he was treating Ratbag, that the Doppleganger hadn’t earned, and didn’t deserve, that made Ratbag round on him. “How the shrakh could you know, and him not?” he demanded. “You’ve never even met Talion!”
At least the Other Gravewalker had the good grace to look pensive. “I wouldn’t like to say how I do know,” he replied. “But, I remember some of the same things your Ranger does and - by now I’ve spent a good deal more time than he has in the company of Orcs. Living Orcs, that is.”
“That’s shrakh,” Ratbag said dismissively. “Him and me, the two of us spent months travelling together. Well. It’s gotta have been a good few weeks, at least.”
“Ratbag.” The way the Doppelganger smiled Talion’s smile at him sent a skewer of painful sensation right through the Orc’s insides. He had to remind himself, forcefully, that any impression of warmth between them was unwarranted; completely imaginary. Back then it had been Talion and Ratbag together, not Ratbag and - and whatever you wanted call this wretched, bedraggled, cobbled-together copy of him.
“Ratbag. Now you’re an anomaly,” the Doppelganger said. “And I’ve no doubt at all that your Ranger’s a far better man than I.” Here he broke off, and puffed out a short, self-depreciating huff of breath, that to Ratbag’s consternation echoed in his ears with resounding familiarity. “I’m sure he’s better than I could ever hope to be. But, on the other hand you might consider that perhaps that’s what’s left me with a better understanding of Orcs than your Ranger has. I mean it could be because of my - deficiencies.”
Ratbag nodded. He supposed that might’ve made a kind of sense. “So you’re not Talion. If that’s what you’re saying then what - what should Ratbag call you?”
The Other Gravewalker sat back against the bars of his cage, exactly as if he was settling in for a cosy conversation. Fat chance of that happening! As if Ratbag didn’t have far better things to do with his time than hang about in the rain chewing the fat and chin-wagging with the likes of - of this thing.
“Well Ratbag,” the Doppelganger said, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought too much about calling myself anything.”
(But still. Poor hopeless bastard sitting there soaking wet and with not so much as a shrakhin’ name to him.)
The Orc crept closer. Here, at least, was something they could possibly have in common between them. “When you first came round,” he said. “In the vats. Didn’t you know then? I mean, like, right from the off?”
“If you want to talk about ‘right from the off’, the first thing I knew about was your Ranger,” the Duplicate replied, “but I also knew what had happened - what had been done to me, and that I wasn’t him.”
“Hmph,” Ratbag snorted. Then his tone turned sly. “Well, if it’s a name of your own you’re looking for,” he told him, “then going by what them other Uruks most often like to call you, that means your name’s probably -“ and he dropped and roughened his voice in startlingly accurate imitation of an Uruk pit master - ‘oi you! You Shrakh!’ That’s what Ratbag reckons it’s gotta be.”
“Tying for position,” the Doppelganger replied good-naturedly, “I’d say, with ‘Worthless Bastard Pinkskin.’
Ratbag grinned at him. “Yeah. You’re right. It’d be a total toss-up between them, that one.”
The Duplicate nodded. “No doubt it would be a very close-run thing.”
They sat together in companionable silence. It wasn’t destined to last for long.
“But you’re not to call yourself ‘Talion’.” The sudden fury with which Ratbag found himself turning on the Duplicate surprised him. “Because that name’s taken. You’ve no right to it.”
The Other One shook his head, beginning to look - as Talion himself sometimes did - more than a little out of his depth. “Of course I know that Ratbag,” he said. “I wouldn’t.”
“Talion,” Ratbag continued, “now we both know he’s the Ranger. Maybe Ratbag should just call you ‘the Stranger’ instead. Helps avoid confusion, won’t it?”
Now, Ratbag had meant it at best unkindly, in a context of: ‘because you’re a nothing but a stranger to Ratbag, and that’s all you’re ever going to be.’ His intention had been to put the Other Tark Bastard firmly in his place, but to his dismay, the Man who wore Talion’s face completely failed to pick up on any of the hidden, antagonistic subtext of it. He only smiled a little, looking relieved. “That’s better than I could have hoped for.” He hesitated, then reached his hand out, extending it towards Ratbag through the bars of his cage as he said in that quiet, down-to-earth, Ranger’s way of his - “thank you, Ratbag. It’s far better than any of the names I’ve been called before.”
Usually an Uruk of Mordor would have no truck with all of this namby-pamby, Mannish shaking-of-hands and wanting to be friends malarkey. An Orc would sooner spit on him! Perhaps it was only an attempt to allay the sickly curl of guilt he felt in his stomach over his treatment of this unfortunate, oblivious sod, but for a moment Ratbag found himself grasping at the hand the Other One was so hopefully offering him in return. Maybe it was because Ratbag knew full well that the Other One, if he was anything at all like Talion, would never deliberately prevaricate. No, he seemed under the genuine impression that the two of them were, or were at some point going to be chums, or something - and although Ratbag was well aware that he didn’t owe this pointless Copy of a Character anything, at the same time there was something about the way he seemed so guileless, honest - defenceless, that - well, it did. It was already beginning to work its way right under Ratbag’s skin.
He carefully released his hold on the Stranger’s hand, trying hard not to think about how cold it had felt or the tremors, barely suppressed, that were running through and through him. That didn’t matter, Ratbag insisted to himself, because this wasn’t Talion.
“Stranger,” he said gruffly. “Ratbag’s pleased to meet you.”
The Other Gravewalker spent his days being beaten bloody in the Uruks’ training ring. That was another difference between the Other Gravewalker and Talion: he couldn’t heal like him.
“Why don’t you ever fight back?” Ratbag had demanded of him one evening, not long after their first meeting. “In the pits. Can’t you fight them? Does that mean you really are a coward? Or do you really not know how?”
The Other Gravewalker regarded him steadily, considering his answer before replying. “I don’t wish to prove myself as a fighter,” he said, “because of the Alchemist, and his plans.“
“Because of Gurza?” Ratbag didn’t fail to notice the hunted look came into the Other Gravewalker’s expression at the sound of the Alchemist’s name.
“That’s right,” the Duplicate said. “It’s because of what Gurza intends to do with me. He wants to make more, Ratbag. He thinks by using me he’s going to be able to create his own Gravewalking army.”
“And can he? Can he make more like you?”
“I don’t know Ratbag. I don’t know. But so far his attempts haven’t been successful. So far - I think not.”
“Perhaps it’s because you’re only a copy!” Ratbag said encouragingly, very much intending his observation to come as a welcome piece of good news.
But the Other Gravewalker’s shoulders hunched, almost imperceptibly, and he looked away, seeming to almost draw in on himself. “’Only a copy,’” he repeated under his breath, something unfathomable creeping into his tone. “That may well be. Even so, I can’t take the risk of that happening.”
“So you - not fighting,” Ratbag replied, tilting his head to on one side. Clearly there was more behind the Other One’s unwillingness to engage in combat than Ratbag had been crediting. “It’s because you want to let on to the Alchemist that you’re a dead loss.”
“It’s part of it,” the Duplicate nodded, “and, another reason I don’t fight back is because I can die, Ratbag. I’m not the same as your Ranger. I know death will come to me soon enough. I’ve no reason to chase it, for when death does come, it’ll free me.”
Here he was, harping on about death and wanting to die and where would that leave Ratbag? Tossed out on his own again, that’s where, with nothing, and no-one, just like after Ratbag’s encounter with The Hammer when, without so much as a backward glance, the original Talion had cheerfully up, up and away and left -
With an abrupt movement the Orc stood, biting down hard on that unhappy chain of thought. His eyes were bright and his ears twitched irritably, involuntarily.
“’Not the same as the Ranger’?” he replied, “could’ve fooled me! ‘Cause Ratbag’ll tell you something, ‘Stranger’: when you start talking like that, you sound exactly like him.”
“I may sound like him but I’m not,” the Other Gravewallker said, “as I think we both agree, so there’s no need to be cross with me. I’m well aware I’ve no chance of holding a candle to him.”
“Ever wonder if maybe, for a start,” the Orc grumbled under his breath, “it’s because you’re not planning on living long enough? Maybe if you weren’t so set on chucking your life away, very first chance you get - ”
Other Gravewalker shrugged. “I suppose there’s that. And there are other reasons -“
Ratbag jutted his chin. “What’s your point?”
“My point, Ratbag -“ he looked up at Ratbag with a small, lopsided smile “ - is that time is short, so for the present, if we can, I’d like try and forget about death, and Gurza, and all of those things.” He held out a section of his ratty Caragor-hide blanket and gestured with it, hopefully. “I don’t suppose you want to try and get out of the cold tonight, do you?”
That dratted blanket! Ratbag had all kinds of mixed feelings about the Other Gravewalker’s Caragor-hide blanket.
‘Let’s get out of the cold’ he’d say, or ‘shall we try and get warm?’ Or even ‘here. Come sit by me a minute.’ Ratbag wasn’t some stupid, soft sod, and yet seemingly all the Stranger had to do was ask - and for some reason, Ratbag would find it nigh-on impossible to resist him.
Because: all of two minutes! That’s about the length of time he’d lasted in terms of any resolution he’d had for keeping the Duplicate at arm’s length, and for not getting mixed-up, or in any other way involved with him. Ratbag wasn’t some soft sod, or anybody’s stupid dupe and yet that very same night, within moments of speaking to the Stranger, what did Ratbag find himself doing? He was only scampering off to make a trade with Khash-kan, that’s what. Khash-kan the Uruk, the Alchemist camp’s resident fence.
In any Orc-encampment or fortification Ratbag had ever visited - and, given the itinerant lifestyle that circumstances had forced him to adopt, over the years he’d visited many, there’d always be a thriving, black-market trade in contraband - almost by definition; so long as a willing seller, or buyer, knew how to find it. And Ratbag, with one foot forever stepping in on the shadier side of Orcish life invariably did know where the best boot-leg traders could be found. In the Alchemist’s camp at that time there operated a lively trade in services - personal and otherwise, as well as stolen goods: pilferings from the Uruks’ official stores; from the ruins and battlefields of Gondor, and every other kind of illicit plunder. It was Khash-kan the Fence presided over it all, and not a stolen cup of grog, nor stolen grog-cup changed hands without his say-so. He was the Orc who Ratbag set off to visit.
But first Ratbag had to take a short detour, to a stone way-marker that stood a mile or two outside the camp. The item he’d come to fetch was carefully stashed there, up under the crumbling arches of a low viaduct bridge. The fetching down of it dislodged a quantity of rock dust, spiders and mortar straight onto Ratbag’s head, but at least the object still seemed to be intact.
“I give up.” Khash-kan the Fence rocked back on his heels and peered near-sightedly down at Ratbag, across the table onto which Ratbag had laid his remaining prized possession. The object itself was something Ratbag had made with his own two hands some time ago; a rough-hewn yet still beautiful confection of leather and curved bone. “No idea,” Khash-kan repeated. “Go on then, what is it? You’re gonna have to give us a clue.”
Ratbag stared at him. As far as he could tell this didn’t appear to be a ploy on Khash-kan’s part to bring Ratbag’s price down.
Khash-kan was clearly an Orc who had a penchant for elaborate, fancy things. A series of intricate chains of gold were looped across the right side of his face for starters, each one stretching from a large, gemstone-studded piecing in his nose, to one of a number of decorative rings set in the outside of his ear. And the Fence was only sat there, bold as brass, with the ample spread of his backside parked on a gilded sort-of throne-looking arrangement, while at the same time being kitted out in a bona fide Elvish cloak. Shrakh knows where he’d got it from, as it wasn’t one of those sensitively woven, muted, landscape-coloured, practical woollen ones for going hiking in neither. No. Khash-kan’s cape had all the substance of a set of net curtains and moreover the damn thing glittered. It glittered because there were golden threads running through the diaphanous warp and weft of its fabric, for shrakh’s sake. And its purpose: purely decorative. The thing looked High-Elven: First Age, Second Age - but honestly, who cared, or could even tell. Yes, Khash-kah liked things fancy and maybe that was the problem, because Ratbag’s handiwork, with the definite home-made quality it had to it, arguably lacked a certain sense of dash and finesse.
“It’s armour,” Ratbag said. “You’re only looking at a top-quality piece of Warchief’s armour, obviously.”
“Armour!” Khash-kan repeated. He called over, addressing the nearest of his two, heavily-muscled ‘business associates’ who stood, one on either side, of the entrance to his base of operations / stockroom; or,‘The Trove’ as Khash-kan liked to refer to it. “Fingun! This look like ‘obviously Warchief armour’ to you?”
“No, boss,” the goon named Fingun replied dutifully. “Now I think you wanna ask how a little worm like him come by it, boss.”
The item Ratbag was seeking to trade was a section from the set of Warchief’s armour that Ratbag had made after the Original Talion had helped him secure his promotion. It consisted of a piece of neck-protection, from which curved, upward pointing segments of bone protruded, ominously. Attached to that were two large, fanged, animal-skulls that Ratbag had worn in place of pauldrons, the thing as a whole having been made from meticulously carved and polished Warg-bone. Ratbag had made it himself, and, for a time, had worn it with utmost pride.
That, of course, was before he’d been beaten by the Hammer of Sauron, and before the Man he’d come to care for, his Tark Ranger, had forever gone away from him.
Ratbag’s current status was no more than that of a lowly Snaga, and in terms of future prospects, as a Snaga-Orc he was likely to remain. Though he’d managed to retain the much less conspicuous breast and back sections of his Warchief armour, there was no way an Orc of Ratbag’s standing would ever get away being out and about and wearing such a ostentatious, attention-grabbing item as the neck-and-shoulder protection. He’d be challenged by a far stronger Uruk immediately, and be defeated on the spot.
Little further use as his armour was to him even then, Ratbag hadn’t been able to bear to part with it. So he’d hidden it - along with his pain and sense of loss at having been left behind by Talion; hidden it along with the end of his hopes and dreams for the future, and all of his vanquished ambition.
Yes, he’d had to park all manner of baggage away, up underneath that viaduct bridge.
“I made it myself,” he told the Fence, his tone defiant. “It belonged to Ratbag, once,” he added, as his nerve failed him. “That’s what Ratbag should’ve said. But he’s got no use for it anymore.”
Kash-kan eyed him up and down with measuring look. “And what are you looking to trade for this ‘Warchief’s armour’ of yours then?”
Ratbag told him.
“’Waterproofs?’” Kash-kan repeated. He stood for a moment, scratching his head. “Narr, don’t think I’ve got any ‘waterproofs’ for you as such. But - here! Fingun!” once again he called to his associate. “Go in back a minute.” He nodded to Ratbag. “Not a problem. We’ll see what we can do.”
So, what Ratbag eventually obtained for his trade, following a protracted session of bargain-striking to-ing and-fro-ing, might not have been exactly what he’d set out to secure, but all in all he supposed: close enough. What it lacked in cleanliness and structural integrity - for there was a long rent almost half way across the middle of it - it made up for in terms of its sheer size and bulk. It was a large, if a little moth-eaten, Caragor-skin. He took it back across the campground to the slave-cages and the Other Gravewalker.
The Stranger looked up as he arrived, surprised that Ratbag was there again so soon yet at the same time undeniably pleased to see him.
Ratbag approached. Without further ado he pushed the package through the low-slung hatch that was used for passing food and water and other sundries in and out of the cell. “Here, Stranger,” he told him. “So you don’t end up catching your death.”
“Ratbag?” the Other Gravewalker regarded him questioningly. “Where did you get this? This isn’t something of yours, is it?”
“It is now,” the Orc replied. “Ratbag traded for it. But it’s not for you,” he added hastily. “It’s just for tonight. Seeing how you’re stuck here and it’s raining. Ratbag didn’t get it for you, or anything. It’s only -“
“On loan. I understand.”
“Yeah,” Ratbag nodded. “It’s only a borrow.”
In spite of Ratbag having already just told him, spelling out exactly the way things were between them, he could hear real warmth in the Stranger’s voice when he replied. “Of course it is.”
The Other Gravewalker unfurled the blanket. “You look about as cold as I feel,” he said, as he shook the residual dirt and dander out of it, “and there’s room enough for two. Here. I’ve an idea. Why don’t we share it. Unless - ” and he broke off, beginning to look painfully unsure of himself again, “there are other places you have to be.” His shoulders sagged. “I’m sure there must be far better things you have to do.”
Huh! Ratbag thought. ‘Aren’t there better places that Ratbag could be?’ And sure enough, at that exact moment he could easily have been somewhere else: being called out for instance for trying to sit too close to the Uruk-barrack main fire, or getting chased from the warmth of the mess-pit for loitering, after his work was done. Better places to be! If that’s what he thought, then that showed what the Other Gravewalker knew, and so much for him reckoning he was already thoroughly acquainted with Ratbag, inside and out.
“No, Stranger,” was all he told him, however. “Ratbag can stay here with you.”
The cage the Duplicate was in abutted, and had been built close up against a beetling outcrop of rock that stood largely in place of its back wall. The structure was staked into the ground and had been secured to the face of the cliff but there remained, at the junction between the gridwork of bars and rock wall, a number of gaps. None of them were significant or large enough to allow proper entrance or exit or, say, a full-grown Man to escape through, but the spaces that were left were more than adequate to allow the Other Gravewalker to bundle back through to Ratbag’s side one half of a torn Caragor-skin.
And, in fact, the rip across the middle of it turned out to help with the fit. With the intact portion of the skin between their backs and the wet wall of the cliff, the long jagged rent that ran perpendicular was positioned in a way that accommodated the bars of the side of the cage, so that Man and Orc could each get his head under partial cover under one of the torn sections of rough leather hide.
Sheltering under there with him was a little like being in a poorly-insulated, malodorous, extremely cramped tent. Nevertheless, the Duplicate pressed up to the bars on his side of the cage and Ratbag scrunched, gratefully, nearer to him on the other because the Stranger had been right, Ratbag was; he was absolutely bloody freezing. Not that it wasn’t still cold in there, and damp. But the shared heat from their bodies and the warmth of their breath was slowly working to remedy that, and if their makeshift tent was beginning to smell of grubby Orc and unwashed Man, and, most strongly of all of the peculiar, wet-dog aroma of damp Caragor, damn the Stranger if - under the stronger notes of blood, and sweat, he didn’t also smell exactly like Talion, too.
Like all Orcs, Ratbag was an opportunist. He was quite capable of making the most of things. So he closed his eyes and laid his face against the Stranger’s shoulder.
But still, he missed Talion. How he missed him. And it wasn’t nearly the same, with this one, but for now Ratbag supposed the Stranger would have to do.
The Other Gravewalker didn’t react for a long moment. Then, moving very hesitantly, he pushed his nose through the bars and into the sparse hair on top of Ratbag’s forehead. Ratbag felt him breathing slowly in and out there before he relaxed against him. The Stranger gave a long, shuddering sigh.
Ratbag was shaken awake by a sharp inhale of breath from his companion, together with an involuntary tightening of the arm that, sometime in the night, he’d apparently put through the bars of the cage and slung round his shoulders. That, and the way his whole body tensed, transforming in an instant from sleep to wakefulness, becoming tautly alert. With a deliberate movement the Stranger leaned forward, and at the same time pushed Ratbag back against the rock wall of the outcrop behind him, almost as if he wasn’t sitting on the ground, stuck in a cage, and was doing his best to put himself between Ratbag and harm’s way, just as the Original Talion had so often done.
Yes, ‘harm’s way’ was about right, for standing a short distance away, silently watching them was the Alchemist. It was Gurza himself! And here’s the funny thing: Ratbag thought he’d be in line for a right rollicking, getting caught with the Other Gravewalker like that. Fraternization with the enemy was surely what they’d call it, him and Ratbag being on opposite sides and all in this war business. But no, the Alchemist made not one word of comment or complaint. He just kind of waited there, watching them out of his cold pale eyes. He was still as a statue, but for the steam of his breath condensing around him in the chill morning air.
Other Gravewalker’s attention was completely fixed on Gurza. He’d dropped his head and was glowering up at him from under lowered brows. For an extended moment he and the Alchemist locked gazes and the Alchemist glowered back.
There was a heightened-senses, cat-and-mouse quality to it.
‘Not cat-and-mouse,’ with a sinking feeling Ratbag realized. ‘Much more like an animal, caught in a trap.’
He could feel the Stranger shaking slightly, against his side.
Gurza snorted once, narrowing his eyes at the Stranger, and bared his yellow teeth in a slow, cruel grin. Without a word he turned his back on them, and left.
The Other Gravewalker watched Gurza till he was out of sight. Then he turned to Ratbag. “You’d better go,” he told him, “it isn’t safe.”
Ratbag rolled his eyes. “We’re in Mordor, Stranger. It’s never safe.”
Moving stiffly, with muscles sore and cramped from the awkward position he’d been holding, as well as the cold, Stranger disentangled himself from Ratbag. “Nevertheless. He shouldn’t have seen you here.”
“Stranger? Are you -are you frightened of Gurza or something?”
“Yes,” his companion replied flatly. “And not only on my own account. That means you shouldn’t be here.” He gave Ratbag an expectant look. “You can’t stay, Ratbag. So - off you go.”
Ratbag blinked back at him, stung by having just been so abruptly, and not to say undeservedly dismissed. And here Ratbag had been, worrying and fretting, on his behalf! Now, who on earth did this Pinkskinned glob think he was, ordering Ratbag about and telling him he should be getting on with that job and this?
It was an account of the long night being over, Ratbag fumed to himself, he’d wager that was the reason. Now that the sun had come out, the birds - such as there were birds, in Mordor - were singing, and morning had frigging broken, the Stranger was no longer feeling so cold, and alone or - or frightened, and was obviously in a frame of mind to be more positive. With no further need for Ratbag, here he was, casting Ratbag off like an old shoe.
A proper Orc, if crossed, wouldn’t hesitate to spit on his antagonist, particularly one who found himself in such straitened circumstances as this…this useless piece of Manfilth. He’d curse him; burn him; goad him with a pointed stick! There was no end of cruel things that as a proper Orc, Ratbag could, and ought to do.
But Ratbag wasn’t a proper Orc and the Other Gravewalker was Talion’s double.
“Fine then, Stranger,” he snapped over his shoulder. He made a point of not looking back as he began to walk, rapidly, away. “Ratbag can tell when he’s not wanted so - so thanks for nothing, eh?”
“Ratbag?” The Man called after him in consternation. “That’s not what I was saying. You must know that. Wait!“
But Ratbag closed his ears to the confusion and dismay in the Stranger’s voice. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Ratbag supposes he’ll see you - when he sees you.”
‘Ratbag’ll see you when he sees you.’
That was the last thing Ratbag had said to the Stranger, and in anger, but circumstances dictated that that happened quite a bit sooner than he’d been anticipating.
“Hey you – Glob! Little Glob.”
One of Gurza’s lieutenants had cornered him in the Commisary, later that same day. Exuding a sleekly confident, menacing air, he advanced on Ratbag until the smaller Orc’s back was pressed right up against the wall of the Commisary tent. “You’re the Glob whose name’s Ratbag," he said. "Ratbag the Coward, yeah?"
“I could be,” Ratbag answered, his tone wary.
“Little Glob! That’s you! Yeah!”
“Yeah?” Ratbag repeated, when it became obvious that the Lieutenant was waiting for a reply from him.
“Seems as if you, Little Glob, have been sitting upon quite the h’unexpected talent.” The big Uruk nodded portentously, giving emphasis to his own words. “And we both know very well what that talent is, don’t we?”
Ratbag racked his brains, but his mind was blank. A hidden talent? He couldn’t come up with anything. “…do we?” he said.
“Yes, Little Glob. It’s about you and that filthy Pinkskin. Now, I can’t do it. Me mates can’t do it. None of Gurza’s troops, neither. But you! Gurza himself says he seen you do it.”
Ratbag had come under the Alchemist’s attention? He knew very well that nothing good ever came of sticking your head up over the parapet. “What does Gurza think he’s seen?”
“He seen you cosying up to that dirty piece of shrakh from the slave-cages. What do you think of that! When none of the rest of us can get nowhere near that filthy Man-Thing.”
Ratbag pretended to be thinking back. “Right enough,” he said, “Ratbag reckons he might of done….what you said, but if he did it’s only just been the once, he swears. He’s learned his lesson! And you’ve got his word he’ll never do it again. So – is that all the Alchemist wanted to tell me?”
“Ah, ah-ah-ah!” the Lieutenant chided, waving one sausage-sized forefinger right up in Ratbag’s face. “Getting well ahead of yourself, aren’t c’her? Narr, what Gurza wants is for you to carry on doing it. You’re getting new orders, see?”
“What is it that Ratbag’s to carry on with doing, though?” He felt he needed to have it spelled out for him, although he already had the most awful premonition.
The Lieutenant shrugged. “S’really up to you. Maybe you can start by taking that Tark-Glob his ration of an evening, and shit. Sit by an’ wait to make sure he eats it. That kinda thing.”
No. No! Gurza wanted him to carry on ‘cosying up’ to the Other Gravewalker? Why on earth would anyone want to force Ratbag to do such a thing?
By now the Orc was actually wringing his hands a bit. “But why’ve you come to Ratbag? Why does it have to be me?”
“I just said, didn’I? Because. It’s because none of the rest of us can do it. So go on, then.” He waited expectantly. “Job starts now. Best you run along and get on with it. Chop-chop!”
So here he was back at the slave cages. Again.
Ratbag shook his head vigorously, already full to the brim with irritation at the Stranger; irritation at the impossible situation he’d landed him in, coupled with distaste. For once again the Other Gravewalker’s voice was overflowing with that shrakhing, glad-to-see-you tone of warmth and welcoming, and how could it be that he honestly had no idea how Ratbag really felt about him?
“It’s good to see you.” He paused, eyeing the look on Ratbag’s face. “I wasn’t sure, after this morning whether you’d –“
“Here.” Ratbag interrupted, cutting him off from whatever he’d been about to say. He shoved the platter of food into the cage. “This is for you.”
Other Gravewalker crouched down to take it out of his hands as he said, polite and courteous as ever - “thank you, Ratbag.”
But it was the tentative smile the Stranger gave him, cautious, yet so very hopeful, that finished it. Ratbag’s patience wore out. “There’s no need for you to thank Ratbag,” he snapped. “He got told he had to come here. He never asked to have to do this. That understood? This is only a job, to him.”
He knew he ought to have felt satisfaction in seeing the Tark Bastard’s expression abruptly close itself off and turn wooden - and yet the Gravewalker’s crestfallen reaction brought Ratbag little or no pleasure. It made him feel….the polar opposite, if anything.
What on earth was wrong with him?
The Duplicate set his food aside. “I see.” He was silent for a long, contemplative moment. Then he said: “I understand what you’re telling me, Ratbag. You see, it’s as if I feel I know you, that the time we were travelling together was only days away. But I understand now that it’s not like that for you. You don’t know me.”
His puffed his breath out in a short, unhappy, exhale. “I really am a stranger to you.”
An odd, out-of-the-blue impulse to make this better! had Ratbag hearing himself blurt - “oh, but no, Stranger, that’s not exactly -“
His words tailed off as their gazes met.
“Thank you, in any case,” the Other Gravewalker said.
For no reason Ratbag’s heart had begun pounding, inexplicably, in his chest. Stranger was being impossible! “What for d’you want to keep thanking Ratbag?” he exclaimed in agitation.
Other Gravewalker lowered himself to the ground and sat with his back to Ratbag, leaning against the bars of his cage. “Oh, I don’t know, Ratbag,” he sighed. “Perhaps I’m thanking you for not spitting in my dinner, or, when you had the chance, for not flinging it in here all over me.” He stopped to reconsider. Crooking a weary eyebrow he said - “I take it you didn’t really spit in it, did you?”
“Stranger! Ratbag would never!” the Orc broke off, as a crafty thought occurred to him. This’d likely get a smile, at the very least, out of Talion.
He flicked his ears in irritation. Or rather – not Talion, as such. The thing is that it wasn’t unusual for Ratbag to stop thinking clearly when he found himself caught in a panic and at this point he had to check himself, wrong-footed; muddled with confusion. The Orc might not quite have been panicking, not yet; but he was filled with a sudden, contrary desire to fix this, to about-turn and immediately repair what he’d broken. There was nothing to lose and surely it was worth a shot because who knew? With any luck the two Men might turn out to share a similar sense of humour, or something.
“Although,” he continued, “what wiv’ the way that slop tastes already, if you think about it a little ‘eau-de-Ratbag’ might go a long way to actually improving –“
The Other Gravewalker, however, paid not a blind bit of attention to Ratbag’s desperate, damage-limitation motivated wittering. “Or perhaps,” he said, his voice low-pitched and quiet, “I’m thanking you because you helped me, and were good enough to wait with me, all through last night.” He let his head fall back against the bars and closed his eyes. “You can pick whichever reason you like. You don’t need to stay any longer. I won’t keep you.”
“But Ratbag has to stay here longer.”
Other Gravewalker smiled unhappily, without opening his eyes. “Is that part of your new job too?”
In that moment Ratbag’s heart, as it was sometimes wont to do, completely over-ruled his head. No! It screamed at him. It’s because Ratbag wants to stay close to you. He doesn’t know why, but ever since he met you, that’s all he wants to do!
But the only thing he could think of to say was - “I’ve been told to stay – until I see you eat some of the food.”
“Then you’re going to be in for a long wait.” Stranger heaved himself to his feet. Staggering the few steps across the cage he fetched something from the other side, that had been left out to air in a patch of sun. He folded it into a rough package which he dropped on the ground, for Ratbag’s convenience, at the opening of the cage’s access-hatch.
“Thank -“ he stopped himself. “It came in useful. I appreciate the loan of it.”
The disconnect between what the Stranger was saying and the way Ratbag was feeling had the Orc failing to grasp what was plainly front of him. He blinked down at the folded Caragor-blanket and then up at Not-Talion in confusion. “Why’re you giving Ratbag this?”
“I’m returning it,” he explained. “It should nearly be dry, now.”
Ratbag waved away his reply. “Look, Stranger. Look. But Ratbag doesn’t want it back. He only ever got it for you in the first place, didn’t he?”
Because it’s the perfect Orcish love-token, isn’t it? Not flowers or sweet-meats. No. A gift of second-hand leather goods -
The Man meanwhile was shaking his head, looking confused. “Yesterday, didn’t you say -“
“You shouldn’t listen to Ratbag! Half the time he only ever talks shrakh. I thought you knew that already.” He pushed the blanket back through to the Stranger’s side. “Ratbag reckons we should share it. Like last time. What do you think?”
Other Gravewalker sagged down beside him. He turned red-rimmed eyes towards Ratbag; tired, unhappy eyes in a face that the Orc to his consternation now realized was looking drawn and grey-tinged with exhaustion.
“Stranger thinks,” he said, sounding inexpressibly weary, “that the easiest thing is if he leaves that decision up to you.”
Stupid! Thoughtless! Talk about kicking a Man when he’s down! An unfamiliar emotion ran through Ratbag’s belly, leaving him with a queasy, hollow feeling in his gut.
Huh! Creeping guilt, that’d be, most probably. The Orc berated himself for having added, if even in a small way, to the difficulties this poor Tark Bastard was already facing.
Ratbag! He chided himself. Must do better!
The Orc nodded to himself inwardly, resolve stiffening on the spot. Whatever it took, from now on he was going to do right, by his Tark Bastard. Yes. That’s what Ratbag was going to do.
If the night of their altercation counted as a low-point, well, at least from there was only onward and upward for them to go.
Ratbag soon found that in some ways, spending time with the Other Gravewalker wasn’t as far removed as it might have been from the experiences he’d once shared with Talion.
Usually their mornings began early, with the Stranger being fetched and escorted by Gurza’s lieutenants out for ‘sparring practice’ (as the Alchemist’s Orcs, in a spirit of near-ludicrous optimism, were still in the habit of calling it), after which he would spend much of the day being put through his paces in the fighting ring. So much for the Stranger’s frequent absences. Ratbag found this aspect not a million miles off from the situation with Talion, wherein the Original Ranger had spent much of his time away on his own and carrying out whatever portentous, revenge-motivated tasks had been occupying him.
At some point as the day wore on the Other Gravewalker would be delivered back to his quarters and after that, sooner or later he and Ratbag would regroup. They ate together, rested together, spent time together, in the evenings.
Although it wasn’t unusual for the Stranger to return from his daytime activities to a varying extent bruised and battered, he was not as a rule too badly injured because for as long as his ‘combat training’ was in progress, Gurza’s Uruks were under strict instructions not to permanently damage him.
So, they’d been rubbing along in their quiet routine companionably enough until one evening the Stranger appeared looking decidedly the worse for wear.
Oh yes. That was right. Ratbag had heard that the Other Gravewalker had been on the receiving end of an almighty trouncing from one of Gurza’s overseers, earlier in the day. He’d heard the news but scarcely believed it given the tight hold the Alchemist was in the habit of keeping over his troops, which served to curb the worst excesses of their behaviour in the training ring. The Uruk involved here was a fresh recruit however, only recently transferred in from a neighbouring encampment.
“This new guy,” Ratbag demanded. “Didn’t he get the memo about them not laying it on to you too thick?”
Moving with painstaking care, Stranger eased himself down and sat on the ground by Ratbag. “Apparently he didn’t,” he answered in matter-of-fact enough tones, but then added, under his breath: “it’s all right. This’ll be over, soon.”
At once Ratbag’s senses were on high alert. “Stranger? What d’you mean?”
“I mean that your Alchemist, Gurza, is losing patience with me.”
Ratbag looked him over solicitously. One hand bore a rough bandage – blots of blood already running together as they began to seep through, and it was obvious that the Stranger was heavily favouring his left side. From the way he was moving the Orc suspected bruised, or at worst cracked ribs. “How badly are you hurt?”
Stranger gave a weary sigh. “It’s nothing for you to worry about, Ratbag.” He turned to Ratbag to reassure him. “Really, it’s nothing at all.”
The Orc, however, was far from being reassured. “Stay right here,” he told him. “Ratbag – he’s going to try and sort this.”
“Mm-hmh.” Other Gravewalker had already shut his eyes.
Ratbag was back from his errand as quick as he possibly could be. The Other Gravewalker was where he’d left him, propped up against the bars of his cage. Ratbag roused him gently, uncorking the leather flask of spirits he’d stolen for him so that the volatile fumes from it wafted close across his face. “Here. Have a drink of this, Stranger,” he said. “It’ll help. Ratbag promises.”
“Orc-grog.” He wrinkled his nose at the powerful aroma. “I can’t tell whether I should drink the stuff or use it to start a fire.”
“Try a nip of it,” Ratbag urged. “You’ve already had enough of making it go ‘ka-boom!’ haven’t you?” Thinking it over he reconsidered. “You know - the proper you.”
The Other Gravewalker looked him up and down with a guarded expression, obviously expecting some form of belittlement or rebuke. When none came, his face relaxed and as their eyes met he gave one of his understated huffs of amusement. “You’re not wrong about that,” he said. In that moment they were both sharing a perfect mental image of Talion, loosing a volley of fire-charged arrows into a stack of Orcish grog-barrels for maximum pyrotechnic effect.
The Stranger took a tentative sip from Ratbag’s flask. The kick from the raw spirits left him coughing and spluttering. His eyes began watering.
“Have a bigger pull, next time,” Ratbag advised, reaching into the cage to keep the flask tilted to his companion’s mouth. He nodded, encouraging him and said, seriously, “it gets better the more you drink of it.”
Stranger managed to down a much larger gulp, that time.
He held the flask to the bars and offered it back to Ratbag. “Keep me company?”
“All right, Stranger,” the Orc replied. “Don’t mind if I do.” With a practiced movement Ratbag knocked back a drink. He passed it back, then they each took another, and another one. Their surroundings were beginning to lose their sharp edges, and fading into a very comfortably blurred soft-focus, by that time.
The Man shook his head and winced. “Not exactly. I think your grog must be a little like the herbs given by the wise woman to my wife, Ioreth, when Ioreth was giving birth. I asked her if it had helped dull the pain. She told me it hadn’t, but that once she’d taken the medicine she didn’t care nearly so much about how much it was hurting, anymore.”
Every person he’d once cared about was dead. That was all he knew of Talion’s past and for that reason Ratbag had always been more than a little hazy, when it came to the Ranger’s family. Because it was such a sensitive subject and how likely was he to ever want to discuss it, and especially with the likes of Ratbag? “Your wife….she gave birth?” he began, cautiously.
“Yes.” Stranger turned to him with a warm smile. “She bore us our son, Dirhael. He was a fine young man, and a credit to her. He was a credit to both of us.” He broke off and his smile faded. “I’m sorry, Ratbag. Ioreth…was the name of your Ranger’s wife.” Shaking his head in confusion he muttered - “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. That’s what I intended to say.”
Ratbag was quick to reassure him. “It’s only the grog talking,” he said. “Seeing how it’s your first time and everything. Must’ve gone straight to your head.”
He was regarding Ratbag with an unreadable expression. What was he thinking? Why did he look so sad when he looked at Ratbag, sometimes – so much sadder than – you know , one might expect given the obvious; the many and varied adverse circumstances that were besetting him? It made Ratbag wish he could do something to make his situation even a little better for him.
But he simply smiled at the Orc again. “It’s my first time for all kinds of things.”
Here was an idea! What was he thinking? Perhaps for once Ratbag could just out and out ask him. “You know how you said you can remember some of the same things Talion does,” he began. “How much is there, Stranger? About the other Ranger, Ratbag means.”
The Other Gravewalker grimaced. “I don’t remember much about his life before the Wraith. And of what comes afterwards, it’s -“
“What is it?”
He looked bleak. “There’s only - pain. Bloodlust. Killings. Overwhelming grief. So much that in a way not being able to properly remember almost comes as a relief.”
Ratbag cursed himself inwardly. He’d had to go and open up that can of worms, hadn’t he? “Because of all the things he’s lost.”
“Yes.” The Other Gravewalker uttered another deep and weary sigh. “But, in among it, all the darkness, and the death, there’s – “ he broke off, staring at Ratbag with the strangest look, shaking his head.
The Orc felt like he was poised right on the brink of something, of some important truth or revelation. “What is there, Stranger?”
“There’s you, Ratbag,” Other Gravewalker said. “Lifting his spirits. Cheering him.”
‘Cheering him?’ That was a long way from being anything like Ratbag had been expecting. “But I never thought Talion even liked Ratbag, not at first,” the Orc replied. “To begin with he was always on and on at me to stop following him.”
“Perhaps he was. But even at the time you were still cheering him.” Stranger’s expression turned rueful. “Sticking with him, like a burr caught in his shoe.” Through the bars he reached out and rested his hand on Ratbag’s shoulder, in just the way Talion himself might once have done. “Yes, Ratbag,” he told him. “I remember you.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Now let me ask you something.”
“Why didn’t you keep following him? After the Hammer. Why didn’t you go after him?”
Now they came to it. Ratbag’s heart felt as if it had swollen large and tight enough to fill the whole of his chest. The acute sensation brought tears pricking to the backs of his eyes.
“Because – it’s because afterwards he didn’t even want Ratbag, did he? I’d been hurt and – did he come looking for me? Did he shrakh. Off he goes, merrily off on his ruddy ‘road to Nurnen’ bollocks quest instead. Yeah. Yeah, Ratbag knows when he’d not wanted. He sees which way the wind blows! So you can shrakhin’ well just - jog on then Talion, can’t you.”
“Ratbag. Ratbag.” Other Gravewalker’s tone was urgent.
“’Ratbag, Ratbag,’” the Orc parroted unkindly, dashing drops of salt water from his face. “You keep saying that. But you know what? Ratbag has no idea what you want him to think when you say it.”
“I want you to know that Talion did go searching for you. But you weren’t on the battlefield –“
“That’s because scavengers – slavers, came and took –“
Stranger nodded. “Because slavers had already taken you. Talion thinks that you’re dead. I did too, until that night in the camp when I saw you. You should know that he mourned you. He misses you. And as for knowing you’re not wanted, you keep on saying that, too, but you’re wrong, Ratbag. Talion does want you. Of course he does. As I do.”
Ratbag’s eyes bored into him. “Stranger? What do you mean?”
Other Gravewalker made a soft sound of exasperation. “I mean that I want you here beside me, just as much as your beloved Ranger does. More than he does, maybe -”
The Orc surged towards him, insinuated himself tucked as closely in as he could manage against the Stranger’s side. He eased his companion’s hands through the bars of the cage towards him, set the uninjured one to petting through his hair and pushed his face into the other, caressing and covering both sides of it with little, gentle, inexpert, lip-nips and half-kisses. And as he went he kept right on talking, trotting out such excruciating, starry-eyed tosh as -
“Ranger, oh Ranger! But Ratbag does, all he wants is to be here with you, too – “
Even if at the same time he was shamelessly aware that he was spouting utter gibberish.
He might well have been talking nonsense but it seemed that the Other Gravewalker, at least, was still paying attention. His pose stiffening, he began to pull away from him. “Ratbag?” he said. “Are you talking to Stranger now, or to Talion?”
Punch-drunk from the warmth of his hands and the wonderful, familiar scent of his skin – as well as, it has to be said, potentially the effects of the grog they’d just drunk kicking in Ratbag grinned, blearily, up at him. He wasn’t going to lie to his Tark Ranger…or rather his Tark Stranger….ugh! Whichever.
“Ratbag supposes – it’s a bit of both, really.”
“Honest to a fault.” The Man said, but Ratbag could feel his tensed muscles relaxing. “Good enough for now.” His warm fingers kneaded at Ratbag’s scalp. “That’s going to have to be good enough for me.” Crooking an eyebrow he smiled down at him. “I suppose.”
Usually Ratabg was the lightest of sleepers. Under normal circumstances, usually it took very little indeed to rouse him. The soft scuff of the pad of a foot of a stalking Caragor. That was enough to bring him leaping, screaming, awake. Or the fearful gnashing together of teeth from a Ghûl-Matron’s famished brood. That’d also do it, as would the furtive slink-clink of sword-sheath on armour such as might come when an enemy tribe of his fellow Orcs mounted an ambush-attack.
Any of these noises would easily wake him, as well as all kinds of other, more, and less, horrifying things.
This was a trait he’d not so much honed as had instilled in him; the result of a short, but brutal lifetime’s worth of fear of violence and attack. Oh yes. Ratbag was attuned to the frightful harmonics of his ghastly Mordain environment. Under normal circumstances all of his senses were fine-tuned to it and exquisitely high-strung.
The aftereffects of grog they’d drunk, then. Maybe, come the morning after their night of drinking, that was what had worked to dull his senses.
Or even - perish the thought – perhaps, just for once with the Other Gravewalker dozing there by his side, Ratbag had felt a fleeting, illusory sense that he was something akin to being protected, and…safe.
In any case, come the morning after him and the Other Gravewalker were in for a rude awakening. An almighty, heart-pounding racket jolted them out of sleep.
But it was only Ashok, dragging his sword, with an ear-splitting metallic rattle all along the bars of the Other Gravewalker’s cage. The big Uruk guffawed out loud when he saw them huddled together in one corner.
“Look at the pair of you!” he crowed. “Seems I got a Big Glob” – with a flourish he waved his hand towards Other Talion, “and a Little Glob!” - he indicated Ratbag, “here before me! Here’s happy together, innit?”
Neither the Big Glob nor the Little Glob found they had much they wanted to say to him in reply.
“Oh, Big Glob, Little Glob,” Ashok’s voice had taken on a sing-song cadence. “What do I see?”
He turned to Ratbag, grinning with expectation. “Little Glob? Now don’t try an’ tell me you don’t know the rest of it. You do, don’t c’her?”
“Big Glob, Little Glob,” Ashok repeated. He advanced on Ratbag; took hold of him with one massive forepaw clenching round his throat. Keeping half an eye on the Other Gravewalker, the larger Uruk shook Ratbag, hard enough to rattle his bones.
In his cage, Other Gravewalker was already on his feet. “Pick on someone your own size, Ashok.” His voice was low, but deadly serious. “You leave Ratbag be.”
Ashok gave no indication he’d heard him. Flinging Ratbag back and forth for emphasis he snarled down at him again, repeating - “what do I see?”
“Ratbag,” Stranger interjected. “He’s talking about the one with the Caragor, isn’t he?”
“Well remembered,” Ashok deadpanned, without looking at him. “S’a pity then, is’nit Big Glob, that I wasn’t talking to you.” He threw Ratbag to the ground.
Ratbag’s processes of recall were never at their best when he was under duress, but what the Stranger had said had been enough to jog his memory and the words of the rhyme that for some reason was ingrained in all of them, ingrained through some unknown process of conditioning, or rote, came back to him. “Caragor –“ Ratbag gulped, “Caragor’s in the corner, and it can’t catch me.”
Grinning widely, Ashok stood looming over him. “See what you can do when you put your mind to it? Knew you’d get there in the end. Never any doubt in my mind at all.” As the smaller Orc cowered and cringed away from him he leant in close to Ratbag and addressed him at short-distance, head-to-head.
“Look how that Pinkskin is around you already!” he whispered to him. “Good work, Little Glob.” As one of Ashok’s massive, meaty hands extended out again to grab or to slap at him Ratbag flung his arms up over his head – as it was early, yet, for getting smacked in the face - but the only thing Ashok did was to land this weird kind of light, comradely punch on his upper arm. Ratbag, nevertheless, curled into a protective ball as the larger Uruk stepped right over him. Ashok was oblivious. Humming a merry tune to himself away he sauntered, off on his own business.
“Ratbag?” Other Gravewalker demanded, as Ratbag, shamefaced over his most recent display of cowardice, uncurled. “Are you all right?”
“S’just – just horseplay,” Ratbag replied bitterly. “That’s shrakhin’ Uruks for you.” He picked himself up and, struck by a strange desire to make a clean breast and tell him everything, addressed the Stranger from where he was standing, a short distance away. “Then when I was on the ground he told me I was doing a good job cosying up to you, Stranger,” he said. “ Stranger, you know, don’t you, that it being his job’s not the real reason Ratbag’s here, why he - he – “
The Man raised his eyebrows. “Why Ratbag suddenly seems so keen on ’cosying up’ to me?” he said. His face was solemn but he didn’t sound angry. If anything, he sounded amused.
“Well, Stranger,” Ratbag said, abashed, because he couldn’t deny it: he was keen. “Yeah.”
The Other Gravewalker waved Ratbag’s concerns away. “Never mind about Ashok.” He went and sat down against the bars in the back corner of his cage.
Back in their usual spot.
Other Gravewalker stuck a friendly arm through.
The bars between them, Ratbag cosied up against his side.
With his arm round the Orc’s shoulders, the Stranger lodged his nose and his mouth in amongst the hair on top of his head and stayed, breathing steadily in and out. At this point a Man like Talion might’ve wanted to give Ratbag him a fond kiss there, or something, but somehow Ratbag doubted that this poor Tark bastard would have any idea how to do that. Still. He very much enjoyed their closeness, and the feel of the nuzzling and the breathing.
‘Perhaps,’ he thought - perhaps it was even better like this.
“What was that?” the Stranger asked, at length. “That saying. Those words he made you repeat.”
Ratbag scratched behind his ear. “It doesn’t mean anything, not by itself, I don’t think. It’s just – just this thing the Vat-Keeper says to you, once he gets you out the spawning-water, you know?”
Stranger nodded. “I remember.”
“Ratbag knew you must’ve. Else you wouldn’t be here, would you? And then you’ve got to say the right thing back to him, otherwise –“ he broke off, shaking his head.
“Or else what, Ratbag?”
“Otherwise he goes and shoves you straight back in! I saw it happen wiv’ this fella from the same batch I was in. No idea what was happening. Stood there like a sack of spuds even as they held him under, still grinning like a fool the whole way through!” He shook his head, shivering at the memory. “Ratbag thinks maybe it’s a way they check you’ve grown right, or that you’ve come out the way they want you to. Like a place-holder or something.” He squinted at the Other Gravewalker with a deeply worried look. “Stranger,” he said, “don’t you think it’s weird you know it too?”
“I don’t know,” Stranger said, and answered with another question. “Do you? Think it’s odd, I mean.”
That enhanced, accelerated growth process, the accursed, self-same process that had made him. What if it had worked on him the same way it worked on an Orc, and, like an Orc it had also tainted the Other Gravewalker, corrupted him? The very thought of it brought Ratbag to the brink of panic.
“This isn’t good!” he cried, agitation spilling out of him. “Being grown from a vat. It’s done something to your brain!”
Stranger was nonplussed. “By the same token, it must’ve done something to your brain, too.”
Ratbag waved his objection away. “Of course it has. Of course Ratbag knows that. That isn’t what matters to him.”
“If it doesn’t matter then I can’t see what you’re worrying about.”
“Talion!” Why was he being so obtuse! “Then how come you’re still you?”
Other Gravewalker was taken aback. “But, Ratbag,” he told him very gently, “I’m not Talion. You know that. You’ve always known. In fact - ” his lips twisted and when he spoke he looked almost apologetic, “not long ago, it was you who used to be in the habit of reminding me.”
Same difference. ‘Same difference’, Ratbag’s heart screamed at him. Because what was there, really, to choose between them? “As good as!” Ratbag protested. “You’re as good as he is, aren’t you?”
The Man shook his head at him, looking by turns exasperated, pleased and confused.
“But what if it’s, like, polluted you? Like a seed, or a mould, or a fungus that takes its time to grow and spread its way all through you –“
“You can rest assured, Ratbag,” Stranger replied gravely, “that I don’t have any seeds, moulds or fungus growing in me. Not that I’m aware of, at any rate.”
“And that’s on account of it would have to start small, wouldn’t it? It’d barely be anything at first would it? But what if, later on, it starts making you change?”
When he replied, Stranger had that careful, patient note in his voice that sometimes Talion would also get. The Orc recognized it as being his exact tone of voice when he was pretending to be taking Ratbag’s perfectly legitimate concerns seriously when in fact he’d already blithely dismissed them, damn him, out of turn. “And what are you imagining I’d be changing into, exactly?”
“Ratbag doesn’t know! How about – maybe – an evil version, or something?”
“An evil version,” Stranger repeated. “I don’t know. It sounds far-fetched.”
“How much Orc is there in you?” Ratbag demanded. “C’mon. Quick straw-poll. Score of one to ten.” He began counting the options off on his fingers. “How much do you want to hurt people. Push people around. See your comrades fail?”
Stranger shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose it would have to depend on the scale. Does ten count for ‘not at all’ or ‘very much’ with scores like these?”
“Ten counts for ’yes, you do want to do that, you want to do that very much!’” Ratbag exploded. “Of course it’s ten!”
“All ones then,” Stranger replied at once, without even having to stop to consider it. “Really, Ratbag, I’m sure you’re worrying over nothing.”
“’All ones so far. Ratbag supposes that’s something,” the Orc answered, allowing himself to relax a little. “That’s –“ but he broke off when he saw the change in the Other Gravewalker’s expression. He was staring somewhat over Ratbag’s shoulder, at a burly Uruk who was making his way across the outskirts of the encampment towards them.
It was Ashok. This time he was accompanied by three other Orcs, being a small contingent of reinforcements he’d brought along with him. Other Gravewalker and Ratbag sat and watched them approach.
“So here we are again, Globs!” Ashok announced, once he and his comrades were within hailing distance. He stared at Ratbag and the Stranger for a moment. “Very good, Globs!” he told them, in a voice dripping with false geniality. “Now. Get on your feet. Yous twos are wanted,” he informed them, “in the training ring.”
Ashok and two of his assistants stepped into the slave cage. The third stayed outside with Ratbag, keeping a loose hold on him.
One of the Uruks hauled the Other Gravewalker to his feet, and then pushed him to his knees. “None of your funny business Pinkskin,” he growled at him. “Hands on your head. Keep your filthy Mannish mitts where I can see ‘em.”
By now Stranger, it seemed, was accustomed to this kind of manhandling and made no attempt to resist as his arms were shackled behind him. Quite unperturbed, he let them position and pose him like a mannequin, as, addressing Ashok over his shoulder, he said - “both of us? That isn’t right.”
“’You’re to bring not one, or the other, but both,’” Ashok shrugged. “That’s what I was told. ‘Both together, an’ maybe we’ll see just how Big Glob gets on when he’s put up against that precious Little Glob of his in the fighting ring.’”
That got an immediate reaction out of him. Jutting his jaw, Stranger tried to stand but was forced down again.
“Ratbag! Don’t worry,” he began, urgently. “I’m not going to –“ but a jab from an Orcish fist into his injured side sent him doubling over, gasping in pain.
Speaking through his teeth he told him: “I won’t fight you.”
The Orc answered him at once. “Ratbag’s not going to fight you, either.”
Ashok however, was thoroughly unimpressed by this impromptu declaration. “Well, hip, hip hooray,” he spat at the Stranger, “isn’t that blimmin’ marvellous! Seeing how, as far as any of us can tell you can’t fight. And don’t get me started on that piece of Dung-Filth either,” he gestured towards Ratbag, “because, neither can shrakhin’ well he!”
“Bring that one!” the Uruk barked at the guard outside the cage holding Ratbag, then to the pair who had Stranger, “and you two, bring this! Enough! Enough now wiv’ talking! I don’t want to hear another word out of you, or him.”
He had Stranger and the Orcs accompanying him take the lead, running on ahead as they all made their way to the Camp’s fighting arena.
In contrast to the moveable barracks that would be usual for those Orc Tribes that held to a more wide-ranging, nomadic type of existence, Gurza’s stronghold had grown up around the spawning vats and alchemical laboratories that were his main focus of interest. For that reason his encampment was more or less fixed in place, on a piece of high ground by the banks of one of Mordor’s few remaining silty, meandering rivers. Although a large part of the garrison was still housed under canvas, it also incorporated a number of low wooden buildings, built from planks and sections of tree-trunk and tree-root washed down by water, that the Orcs had scavenged for across the wide alluvial floodplain that lay nearby. The camp’s fighting area, with its tiered rows of seating was part sparring pit, part amphitheatre, and was one such structure.
Here, Ashok collared Ratbag. Directing him towards one of the rickety banks of seating that surrounded the ring, he ushered him into place alongside a number of especially rough-looking Uruks, a group of characters that he didn’t well recognize, or know.
“There,” Ashok told him. “That’s where you’ll stay till you’re told otherwise, while we see to that Manfilth, and find out what’s what!”
In the Alchemist’s Camp, as in all other Uruk encampments, the training ring was a central part of everyday Orcish life, and served a number of different, yet related purposes. It was a training and practice area for new, as well as more experienced recruits, and all kinds of entertainments would take place in this setting: displays of fighting prowess, feats of endurance - and it was also a venue for trial by combat.
A blunt-toothed version of such a trial was what Ashok had in store for the Other Gravewalker. One by one, all through that morning, Stranger was set against a succession of Uruk fighters, and one by one his opponents defeated him. The crossbow-wielding archer, who loosed a volley of cork-tipped arrows at him. A wrestler and then a pikeman. It made for painful viewing. One, and then the other wore him down till he was slumped, exhausted, on his knees. He’d move to defend himself or counter if he could, but stubbornly refused to engage them properly and attack.
Whenever Stranger was down, the Uruk fighters and onlookers would hurl abuse at him, for its own sake, or because they were set on provoking some kind of amusing response. The threats and insults they screamed at him seemed to have become an integral part of the display, of what had descended into being a new and violently degrading variety of spectator-sport.
As far as Ratbag could see there seemed no point whatever in them taunting the Other Gravewalker however because the plain fact was that he didn’t react. All the way through it his attitude remained silent, determined - and completely resigned.
Ratbag, meanwhile, had been positioned by Ashok in a seat front and centre, right at the edge of the fighting arena. His feet were more or less sitting in the sand and bark-chip substrate, and he had a complete and unobstructed view of what was happening.
As he would soon came to realize, that line-of-sight viewpoint went both ways, apparently.
Stranger had started out on the far side of the fighting ring, at a point off to Ratbag’s right. As a succession of fresh arena combatants arrived his position had gradually shifted and now, perhaps an hour or so before noon, though much of the main width of the ring was still between them Stranger was fighting almost directly opposite. From there he would dart an occasional searching, solicitous look in Ratbag’s direction.
It was almost as if he’d been waiting until the Stranger was looking their way because the attack, when it came, arrived from nowhere. There was no warning; nothing Ratbag had done to provoke it. Nor was there was anything he could have done to avoid it.
The Uruk sitting in the next seat to him was a hard-bitten character, with only half of his nose remaining, and a Ghûl venom-pitted face. As he sat up in his seat and made a show of stretching, extravagantly, Ratbag could hear the cracks and popping noises made by all of the joints in his spine.
“Here. Little Glob, isn’it? Time for your turn,” the larger Uruk told him. Moving lazily, he got to his feet. He faced Ratbag for a moment, and stood scratching himself, with a preoccupied air. Then, without warning he grabbed hold of him, picking him up by his armoured breast-plate, and lifted him straight out of his seat.
“Steal my gear, would you?” he shouted, challenging Ratbag, before throwing him bodily into the fighting ring. Ratbag was taken by surprise. He thumped to the ground awkwardly, sprawling on his side in the sand as the larger Uruk leapt down beside him, growling - “you’ll pay for this!”
The Other Gravewalker reacted to this so quickly that it was almost as if he had been anticipating that there was trouble brewing. “Ratbag?” he called, and then with a fierce note of warning in his voice shouted to the venom-scarred Uruk, “leave him!” He managed to take all of two steps in Ratbag’s direction before his latest opponent, wielding a cutlass, stepped in to block his path. Other Gravewalker barely paused to break his stride. Taking another step forwards he closed the distance between them, leaving little room for the cutlass-carrying Orc to swing his sparring weapon. Following weeks, or months of non-combative interaction, he had the element of surprise clearly on his side. Placing one hand on each of his startled adversary’s shoulders Stranger, with a forceful, forward-lunging push, simply shoved him stumbling him off-balance and out of his way.
Almost as an afterthought Stranger, as he strode past, grappled his opponent’s blunt-edged sword out of his hands then kicked him onto his back.
Ratbag, meanwhile was also down, being delivered of a comprehensive pummelling by his former ring-mate. He did his best to fight back but as ever, found himself quite outclassed.
“Stay down!” Picking him up for a moment Pock-marks paused to hiss into his face. “Go wiv’ it! Stop trying to – shrakin’ – resist!” He threw him down to grovel on his belly once again, and brought his out-sized, nail-soled foot stomping down right into the centre of Ratbag’s back.
“Stinkin’ Glob-shrakh-streak. I’ll show yer!”
Between Pock-marks’ foot and the ground, the initial impact had driven the breath from Ratbag’s lungs. His struggles for air weakened as the pressure weighing down on him steadily increased. There followed agonizing moments of near-suffocation but his attacker did not relent, and at last dark film began to draw down across his vision. By this point there was nothing left in the world that made sense to Ratbag; there was only the awful crushing weight on his back and most of all his fight against it, to draw his breath in.
The Orc had lost all sense of himself and his surroundings. Perhaps he blacked out for a moment. And so, if he took note of it at all, Ratbag was only dimly aware of a commotion ongoing from the other side of the sparring ring. The sounds of Men and Uruks; battling one other and shouting.
“You won’t!” There was just enough of Ratbag left to recognize that. It was spoken in a Tark’s accent, or something fairly close to being one. Of course. Perhaps that meant the encampment was under attack. Then the Man roared out again: “I told all of you before, to leave him!”
One Uruk’s rough voice raised up in an exclamation of surprise, and anger. It was followed by a clash of metal on steel, and then another.
Of a sudden the weight that had been crushing Ratbag to the ground was lifted. He choked and gasped, making frantic attempts to refill collapsed lungs. Iron-shod Uruk feet stamped down beside his head as a contingent of reinforcements rushed around and past him.
The Uruk Pit-Master flopped forwards, falling clumsily onto his elbows and into Ratbag’s field of vision. The racket and shouting told him that nearby a fierce fight was ongoing.
He retched and heaved, but Ratbag couldn’t catch his breath, and he couldn’t catch his breath. As he rolled painfully onto his back, the abrupt inrush of fresh air and sunlight muddled his senses, dazzling him and –
- that was when Ratbag realized he was done for; that after all, it was the moment of his death, and that some shade or aspect of Talion had come to escort him to the hereafter, because all at once the Gravewalker was there.
He’d come for Ratbag. At last.
Where had he appeared from? How could he have so suddenly arrived, just at the moment he was needed? It made no difference. All that mattered was that he’d come for Ratbag. He was here to save the day.
A short way across the arena he saw the Tark Ranger drop onto one knee, effortlessly avoiding the pike-swipe that had been aimed at him. Up he jumped again, springing to his feet. A punishing back-kick across the kneecaps made quick work of an Uruk who was approaching at his back. Once he’d brought the fellow down to size Talion thrust his elbow, with a sickening crunch of cartilage, backwards into the centre of the Uruk’s face.
In his left hand the Ranger was brandishing a broken section of spear-shaft. At the same time he hurled it, spinning it sideways towards the pike-wielding Uruk. It struck him full-length across the windpipe and he collapsed, clutching at his throat and choking.
Even through the mental fog that was befuddling him, Ratbag could see that his fighting style looked different. In his movements there was little of the Wraith-enhanced élan and fluid grace that had once been apparent. It had been supplanted by a wild and vicious brutal quality; brutality, tinged with desperation. For whatever reason Talion was fighting like an Orc today and it was brutal, but it was effective.
Ashok had found his voice again. “Call Gurza!” he was shouting. “Call Gurza! That Pinkskinned Glob’s been holding out on us! I told yer –“
Talion spun round and dodged. He was fast, his blows hit their marks, and yet still he lacked something of the speed and deadly accuracy that had invested him with such unnerving, inhuman abilities before. Meanwhile more and more of Gurza’s Uruks were advancing on him. Shifting his weight forwards, he barged with one shoulder into the nearest of the troops, spinning him part-way round, off balance. From behind he wrestled with him, positioning the unfortunate Orc as a shield between himself and the mob of Uruks that was closing on him, with his blunt-edged practice-sword lodged in both hands, firmly across his captive’s throat.
A vague thought occurred to Ratbag. ‘Practice-sword,’ he noted, staring dazedly at the desperate, fighting Man. ‘Practice-sword’ seemed very odd, together with the way that Talion looked: wild-eyed and dirty, sandal-shod, and dressed in little more than a ragged tunic-and-leggings arrangement. Where was Urfael? What had happened to his Ranger’s armour from the Black Gate? And why wasn’t he wearing his other weapons, and his bow and cloak?
But that’s not – that isn’t –
The shock of realization brought Ratbag back to himself, somewhat.
That wasn’t Talion. It was the Other Gravewalker. Ratbag’s Stranger!
By now a phalanx of Uruks had the Man surrounded. If not outclassed he was at the very least outnumbered, and they brought him down in short order. Gurza’s Orcs were soon pinning the Man face-down in the dirt, both arms wrenched back between his shoulder-blades - and yet he hadn’t stopped trying to escape; he was still snarling, frothing, struggling.
Cursing out dreadful oaths in Orcish, the Uruk whose nose Stranger had broken had begun shoving, by brute force, from the outside to the inside of the circle of Orcs who were surrounding him. The fellow’s blood was up and he had murder on his mind.
It was like an automatic reaction in that Ratbag didn’t stop to consider it. Before he knew what he was doing he was on his hands and knees and fighting, crawling his way through the Orcish rabble too. He reached Broken-nose just as the irate Uruk was raising one iron-soled boot up, prior to bringing it stamping down into the Other Gravewalker’s face.
A final fish-like wriggle brought Ratbag squeezing between the legs of a pair of Uruks who were jostling for position at the centre of the ring and he squirmed his way towards Broken-nose, reared up and struck, fast as poison-snake. Sinking his teeth as far as they would go into the unguarded calf-portion of the Uruk’s upraised leg, he made the conscious, minute adjustment that would allow to him to fully lock his jaws in place. There. Now, short of someone breaking Ratbag’s head open – which, as he was well aware, might well be on the cards at any moment - there would be no dislodging him. He hung on grimly, in place by his mouth, both arms wrapped tight round the larger Uruk’s leg and hauling back on it with all of his strength.
Chaos broke loose.
Broken-nose proceeded hop in place on one foot, heaving Ratbag back and forth, all the time making the most awful, caterwauling fuss about what was happening.
“Argh!” he was shrieking, “gerr’im off! Someone get this Globbin’ little shrakh-pile off of me-“
- but at least Ratbag’s teeth through the back of his leg combined with his weight dangling from him had been sufficient to throw Broken-nose off-balance enough. At least he’d managed to prevent Other Gravewalker from having his skull stoved in! The little Uruk scrunched his eyes shut and flattened his ears back as closed-fisted blows rained down on his forehead, on his torso - all over him.
“Ratbag!” the Stranger bellowed. With a mighty effort he heaved free of the heaped Orcs who’d had him restrained and, propped up on his elbows, made a frantic lunge forwards, fighting his way towards him. But he was caught with a loop of chain round his neck and dragged back. “Ratbag – “ his voice choked off short.
Now Ashok was wading in. Addressing himself first to Broken-nose he growled - “hold still then, you Glob!” He set two of the Uruks nearby to holding Broken-nose in place, and keeping him still. “Careful. Be careful.” He nodded towards Ratbag. “See that? Gurza says he dun’ want, on any account, any of yous damaging that funny-looking little thing. Not yet! Nothing happens until you hear otherwise from him.”
Next he turned his attention to the Other Gravewalker.
The Orcs had him pushed forward on his knees, one burly Uruk hanging tight onto each of his arms, keeping them stretched up and bent painfully backwards behind him. “Now as for you, Big Glob,” Ashok told him. “Here. Big Glob. Eyes on me.” He made an obnoxious show of clicking his fingers under the Stranger’s nose to get his attention. Bending in close, he squatted down and began whispering intently to him.
He seemed to have a great deal to say to the Stranger and stayed, talking at him for quite a time. Both Ashok and Stranger turned their heads to look Ratbag’s way a number of times during the course of it.
At length he was finished. “Understood?” Ashok demanded of the Stranger, out loud in his normal speaking voice.
With another sideways glance in Ratbag’s direction, Other Gravewalker jerked his head in a single nod, once, up and down.
“S’good.” Laying one of his heavy, hook-taloned hands on top of Stranger’s head, Ashok ruffled through his hair in a manner that appeared to be companionable enough, but which was also a nuanced gesture that succeeded in establishing several layers of threat and menace between Ashok and him.
“Very good,” Ashok repeated. He moved his filthy paw to Stranger’s jaw and made him look him in the eyes for a moment before he spoke. “Now, mind and remember what I said. What comes next? That’s your call. Decision’s entirely up to you.”
Without taking his eyes off Ashok Other Gravewalker nodded his head again. This time he looked defeated. His pose slackened, as if all of the fight had suddenly gone out of him.
“Now, Manfilth.” Ashok made a gesture towards Ratbag. “Do us all a favour an’ bring your lap-dog to heel, won’t c’her? Better be quick about it. Old Beezul there’s fed up getting rows of tiny tooth-marks in his leg.”
At a word from Ashok, they let the Stranger go, the pair of Uruks who’d had hold of him. With a grunt of pain he fell forwards, barely managing to catch himself, after which he began half-staggering, half-crawling his way to Ratbag’s side.
Ignoring the shouts and jeers from the Uruks who surrounded them, Other Gravewalker crouched on his hands and knees beside him. “Ratbag.” His voice was ragged. Bruises were already blooming across the delicate skin of his throat. “You can let go of the Uruk now, Ratbag. You did well,” he assured him. “You saved me! But it’s time to leave off biting him now. It’s all right.”
Ratbag squinted his eyes and wrinkled his nose at him at him, mouth still full of leg-of-Orc. “Mm-mmmh?” he said.
The Man’s face relaxed. “Yes, Ratbag. I’m quite sure about that.” He reached out and, using his body to hide them, brushed the back of his hand up and down the side of Ratbag’s face in a brief, covert movement, managing to do it in such a way that none of the Uruks around them would be able to see. “Leave hold of him. Please. Ashok says – that if you do that, it’ll all be all right. He’s going to let both of us go.”
With that, Ratbag did as he was told. Unlatching his teeth from the Uruk’s leg he spat, then dragged his forearm across his mouth to clear from it the thick, acrid taste of Orc-blood.
“We can go back to the slave-cages then, Stranger?” Ratbag nodded, wanting confirmation of what the Stranger had just told him. “The two of us. Just you and me?”
Stranger’s expression turned pained. He regarded Ratbag with a pinched, unhappy look as Ashok, crouching down beside him, slung a proprietorial arm across his shoulders.
“Oh ho!” Askhok said. “’Back to the slave cages’ is it? Oh, Big Glob! Been telling porkies, have we? Nobody’s said anything about slave cages.” He elbowed the Other Gravewalker sideways in the ribs. “That isn’t what I told you, is it?”
Stranger dropped his gaze and looked at the ground. “Not exactly,” he replied.
“Hnn!” the big Uruk grunted approvingly. “Dead right! Slave cages is ‘not exactly’ what I said.”
“You two!” Ashok called to the pair of Uruks who until lately had been holding the Other Gravewalker at bay. “Take this Pinkskin for me. Escort him, won’t yer?”
“And Ratbag?” Stranger put in quickly. “As we agreed –“
Ashok cut him off from talking. “There’s no need to worry your pretty Tark head about Ratbag. This is quite the spectacle you’ve made, and it’s yourself you should be worrying about. Yeah. You’ve been noticed. And now,” he said, as he gave the Other Gravewalker’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze, “you should consider your dance-card well and truly marked. Our lord and master Gurza would dearly like a word.”
With even more additional thanks, as ever, to Sinick, for reading and commenting very helpfully on the chapter.
The morning’s events in the training arena had ended with the Other Gravewalker being spirited away for his reckoning with Gurza.
After that, information on where he’d been taken and what the Alchemist had in store for him had not been forthcoming. No-one would tell Ratbag anything, nor were they wiling to speak to him about it, or at least not directly to his face. And yet, wherever he went through that interminable, anxious afternoon, a certain type of remark, or observation, would follow him.
“Riding high now, isn’t he?”
Through the heat of the day it continued: snippets of conversation, immediately halted when Ratbag’s eavesdropping or his proximity was registered. There were whispers and insinuations directed his way, too. Comments delivered to Ratbag with a nudge and a wink: “See your Tark pal’s in high feather.”
And: “sure and now that Pinkskin must be feeling his oats!”
None of it was snide, exactly, involving as it did an undercurrent of low-level excitement, more than anything.
“Seen that Tark Ranger of yours, didn’t I?” one of the Alchemist’s high-ranking Lieutenants told him at one point.
In want of fresh orders or anything else to steer his mind away from uneasy thoughts centred on the Stranger’s plight, Ratbag had set about completing his daily list of tasks with a vengeance, and had been clearing mess plates in the commissary tent, following the Uruks’ afternoon meal. Afterwards he’d noticed the Lieutenant idling back, watching him work. Now the fellow approached, seeming in the mood to talk.
“That Man-thing. He was wiv’ Gurza, earlier,” the Lieutenant said.
Ratbag held himself very still as he did his best to modulate both his voice and his expression. It would never do to seem too eager for information. “Was he?” he squeaked.
“Yeah. That’s who I seen him with,” the other Uruk repeated. Then, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial murmur he added: “an’ let me tell you: that Glob was dressed to the shrakin’ nines.”
‘Dressed to the nines?’ Ratbag thought, wringing his hands together wretchedly. But what did that mean? What, was that intended to be a reference to the Nine Nazgûl, or something? He couldn’t bear it!
Circumspection bedamned! “Please tell Ratbag!” he begged the Lieutenant, dropping to his knees in front of him. “What is that - is that supposed to be code? Please tell Ratbag what’s been happening to Gurza’s Tark soldier! Please.”
The Lieutenant gave him a blank look. “It’s not code,” he told him. “Earned his armour, hasn’t he?”
Ratbag could’ve thrown his arms up in the air in exasperation – but as the Lieutenant looked likely to be one of those think-with-his-fists types who would have no qualms whatever about putting a Worm like Ratbag in his place he was careful to keep his face straight. With an effort he held his tongue. All right. So if this Lieutenant-miladdo didn’t want to tell Ratbag, then he didn’t want to tell Ratbag.
“Yeah. Cheers for that,” the little Orc told him, sourly. He picked up the basin of dishes he’d been collecting and, rattling them together with a loud clatter for angry emphasis, stalked off with them into the commissary’s back room.
He was still there hours later, up to his elbows in dirty dishwater and suds when Ashok came upon him.
“Little Glob. Where you been?” Ashok called, making his way towards him. “Been looking all over! What you doing hiding away back here? Don’t c’her know you’re needed? Here. You’ve to come wiv’ me.”
He set off with Ratbag through the campground, moving at quite a pace. As Ashok marched him along, Ratbag did his best to stamp down on his trepidation. Stranger – he hated to think, but told himself he had to. Ratbag would have to - if not be strong for his sake exactly, then at least to be sure and keep his wits about him. Now, more than ever, the Man had need of Ratbag. For the whole day he’d been at the mercy of the Alchemist and his lieutenants. Like as not he’d be gravely hurt.
“What’s Ratbag needed for?” he asked Ashok, as he scurried by the larger Uruk’s side.
“Same rules as before,” Ashok told him, looking down on Ratbag without much interest. “Nothing too difficult. Don’t worry – you won’t need to strain yourself! You just keep fetching for that Pinkskin Glob, and you keep carrying.”
In due course they arrived at a low Uruk-barrack tent, made from sections of canvas interspersed with dusty patches of animal hides. It stood a little way apart, but otherwise looked much the same as all the others nearby.
“You’re to go to him.” The big Uruk jerked his head. “In there.”
Ratbag hesitated on the threshold. From the outside, it looked – all right. There were no obvious signs of recent violence. Ratbag couldn’t hear anything untoward; no sounds of laboured breathing, or cries or groans of pain. Nor could his sensitive nose detect anything. There was no mess, or scent of drying blood. No acrid, clinging, taint from fear.
He swallowed nervously. “What did the Alchemist – so what did you say was the Tark’s punishment? What sort of state’s Gurza left him in?
“Punishment?” Ashok’s face twisted into one of his awful, grisly smiles. “Didn’t you hear? Gurza’s given that Pinkskin a rare old treat.”
Ratbag despised himself for the plaintive note he could hear in his own voice. “And is he? Is he going to need treatment?”
But that just set Ashok to slapping his thighs and guffawing out loudly. “Some of your ’special treatment’ d’you mean? Oh, Little Glob! What a sport! ‘Special treatment’ he says!” Ashok, still laughing, did everything but dig Ratbag in the ribs. “Course, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you!”
He seemed to be expecting Ratbag to make some kind of light-hearted riposte to what he’d said, but when none came Ashok simply shrugged. “Hnn,” he snorted. “Be like that if you want to, then. You suit yourself.”
At that he turned to leave Ratbag to it. But before he did so he clapped one of his filthy, rough hands onto his shoulder, doing it bracingly.
“You go to him,” Ashok told him. “You’ll see.”
With a heavy heart Ratbag pushed his way past the piece of canvas that hung across the tent’s entrance. It took a moment for his eyesight to adjust to the lower light level inside and when it did, his mouth popped open in shock and surprise. Relief and fury warred at once together in his breast. Stranger was all right. He looked uninjured.
But on the other hand -
It was true! There he was, bold as brass and decked out in a ridiculous Tribal armour-looking outfit. Wearing the clothes and trappings of a common Orc soldier, if you please!
Other Gravewalker was kneeling down by the side-wall in the tent. He had some kind of dark, camouflage maquillage or make-up painted across his face. More of the filth was plastered through his hair. He looked up and smiled as Ratbag, outraged, accosted him. “Stranger.” What did he think he looked like? “What - the shrakh?”
His companion’s smile vanished at once. It was replaced by a particular variety of pained expression he’d sometimes get; one with which Ratbag, as time went on, was becoming increasingly familiar.
“It was unavoidable,” Stranger said.
“’Unavoidable?’” the Orc seethed, “while you’ve been out raiding the dress-up box, Ratbag’s been worried sick!
“And I’m sorry about that, but – if you remember – in the fighting ring, I did my best to let you know there was no need for you to worry about me.”
“’If I remember?’ You’ve been gone for ages! You’ve been away all day.” How could he be so calm and collected while here Ratbag was, panicking, beside himself to think what might’ve been happening to him. It wasn’t fair! “Ratbag had no idea what the Alchemist was doing to you!”
“Gurza?” Stranger replied. The sides of his mouth turned down. “If you must know, Gurza spent his day dressing me like a puppet, for the most part. Now he’s seen that I can fight he seems quite –“ he broke off, frowning. “He seems quite taken with me.”
“Then why’d you let him?” Ratbag demanded. “Why’ve you done it?” His agitation threatened to burst out of him and to stymie it he started pacing back and forth in front of the Other Gravewalker, crossing and re-crossing the few feet of floor-space in the tent. “How come, all of a sudden, you’ve up and gone and suddenly started - “ he couldn’t help but spit the word out - “co-operating?”
The Duplicate gave a deep and weary sigh. “Co-operating?” he said, “Ratbag, I’m sure I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“This! All this. You’ve ‘gone native,’ that’s what Ratbag reckons. What about all you said before?”
“It’s a lot better than being out there, getting rained on.”
“Is that what it is then? All this is in aid of is just - just you wanting to save your stupid, worthless skin?”
Other Gravewalker didn’t reply.
“So you’ve cracked it, haven’t you,” Ratbag nodded frenetically, “nice one! Earned your armour and everything. Where to, now? Gonna start scaling the ranks? Planning on trying out for Warchief, next?”
But the Stranger simply carried on with the same thing he’d already been doing: stowing his kit and new weapons under his trestle-bed, before answering in even tones - “you didn’t seem to object too much when you were the one trying to do it.”
“Yeah, Talion,” Ratbag replied sarcastically, “but Ratbag’s an Orc, in case you were forgetting.”
The Other Tark Bastard glanced up at him with an odd look, frowning. “I wasn’t forgetting.” He kept a wary eye on Ratbag as he dusted his hands off and got to his feet.
The angry retort Ratbag had been about to make went out of his head completely. Nobody could blame him for stopping in his tracks and out-and-out goggling, because by any sensible standards, the full effect was - distracting.
He was dressed in the Dark Tribe’s colours, of inky black and the dusty red of old, dry blood. He wore shin boots and armoured gauntlets. A single, spiked metal pauldron. Rivetted bands of dull metal plate and chainmail crossed his chest and a short-skirted battle-tunic made of dark red fabric and black was slung across his hips, low enough to leave a grimy strip of the Stranger’s flat-muscled, white-skinned midriff exposed, pale and bare.
His hair was greased back from his face with a thick paste made from Caragor-fat and wood-ash - the dual purpose of which was cosmetic, as well as insecticidal, and there was a dark smudge of war-paint smeared across his eyes. He stood, towering over Ratbag, as ever quietly unassuming, yet radiating power and presence in spite of it. He was silent. Beleaguered. And how could Ratbag possibly have forgotten?
He was magnificent.
Ratbag had to swallow, hard, past a strange constriction that suddenly seemed to be tightening his throat. “Dark Tribe’s the look you’re going for, is’nit?” he commented, his voice in the moment barely managing to be more than a strangled squeak, “so what about the cowl and scary half-mask part? Looks to Ratbag as if you’re missing a bit.”
“No,” the Other Gravewalker replied, “Gurza gave me the helm, too.” He picked the items up obligingly, clearly about to put them in place.
Before he knew what he was doing Ratbag found himself closing the distance between them. He wrestled the hood and mask out of the Stranger’s hands, flinging them away so that they thumped to the ground against the wall of the tent. There was something jarring, fundamentally wrong, repellent to Ratbag, in the thought of him fitting that snarling Orcish monstrosity on over his clear-skinned, steady-eyed, and - here it was, because Ratbag was kidding himself if he thought there was any chance of getting away from the undeniable fact of it - handsome, handsome face. Standing at the Other Gravewalker’s feet Ratbag blinked up at him. “Don’t, Stranger,” he said. “You’re much better off without. That’s what Ratbag thinks.”
“Well then.” His voice had turned soft, and warm. “If it’s what Ratbag thinks.”
“It is, yeah.” He reached up and scrubbed with his fingertips at the layer of paint smeared across the Stranger’s cheek. “And he thinks you don’t need to be hiding yourself under any of this shrakh, neither. How about he helps you clean it?”
“I’d like that Ratbag,” he said, sounding relieved. “I don’t mind telling you, this stuff’s making my eyes itch.”
The pigment was mixed into a thickly greasy paste however, which resisted Ratbag’s initial attempts at removal. “Wait here a minute,” he said, as a thought occurred to him. “Gotta fetch something. Be back in a jiff.”
At this time of day the Orcish Commissary would be hard at work, preparing the evening staple rations for the Uruks of the Alchemist’s camp. The food he made tended towards being a blandly glutinous, somewhat savoury pottage or stew, and though its precise constituents varied from day to day, Ratbag knew from the prior experience he’d had of helping to prepare it, that the stuff was invariably water-based.
The Commissary’s set of outsized iron kettles were nearly at a ready simmer and it was a simple matter for Ratbag to cross the campground and sneak a wooden bowlful of clean hot water out of the largest one. He settled down with it, crouched between the wheels of a nearby supply wagon.
Next came the remains of his and Talion’s herb stores. Ratbag had kept in a pouch on one of his belts, carefully folded into a torn section of burdock leaf, the last few pieces of stem and plant fragments that he and Talion had foraged for together, early in the summer. The rough-and-tumble tribulations that had beset him since that distant, happier time meant that the material had been mostly pulverized - ground to powder, but the mixture remained sweet-smelling and pleasantly aromatic. Ratbag stared at the grey-green shards for a moment, lost in thought.
“Don’t pick those ones, Ratbag!” Original Talion had exclaimed in consternation, “those are stinging nettles!” And that was the first piece of herb-lore the Ranger passed on to him. Then he’d gone to reveal the next snippet of herb-lore, by pressing slippery, bright-green leaf-juice from a different kind of plant onto the red lumps of nettle stings that were all over Ratbag’s hands.
“That’ll feel better soon,” the Original Ranger had smiled at him, smoothing the cooling liquid into his palms. “Did you really not know about nettles, Ratbag? Most people learn about them when they’re still small.”
Ratbag shook his head. “Ratbag was spawned in a vat, though. He doesn’t know any herb-lore.”
Talion frowned. For a moment he regarded Ratbag with the serious, contemplative expression with which he would look at him, from time to time. Then he smiled. “Then I’ll teach you,” the Ranger replied.
“You’d do that?” Ratbag eyed him, bristling with suspicion. “But why’d you want to do that, Ranger?” And what he was asking, really, was: why would you bother? And with the likes of Ratbag? What’s in it for you?
Talion clasped him briefly on one shoulder. “Well, Ratbag. Everyone should learn at least a little herb-lore. You never know when it might come in useful. I’ll be happy to show you what I know.”
Ratbag sighed to himself. He supposed he’d been saving the plant bits, but with what purpose in mind he couldn’t properly have said. Really though, to what better use was he going to be able to put the remnants than this? With a decisive movement he scattered the herb-dust into the water and stirred at it with his forefinger, letting it steep. Then, carrying the contents, back across the camp he went to where the Other Gravewalker was waiting in his tent. The Orc had him stand still then set about trying to clean him, using a damp cloth – also taken from the camp’s Commissary - wrung out in fresh herb-water, just the same way he’d seen Talion use such a mixture before.
But Ratbag was by no means an expert at this. As he reached up to blot away at the Stranger’s face, hot water trickled down is upraised arms and pooled wetly in his armpits. “Look,” he said, exasperated, because he was making a fool of himself and a hash of this, and the dratted tincture was sloshing all over the place. “Hold still. You wanna -“
“Here.” Without further fuss or discussion the Stranger simply went down on his knees in front of Ratbag. “Why don’t I make things easier for you.” Stranger knelt there, tilting his face upwards, expectantly, and closed his eyes. He looked relaxed. Unquestioning. Trusting of Ratbag, completely, and the thought sent a wrenching sensation through the Orc’s breast.
There were a number of fresh cuts and bruises on his face - but then Stranger always did have numerous cuts and abrasions all over him. Ratbag set about cleaning around them with extra care.
“Thank you, Ratbag,” the Other Gravewalker murmured, under his breath. “It smells good. Cleansing.” He thought for a moment. “Is that - mint? And pine-needles?”
“Yes, Ranger!” Ratbag beamed at him. “It was you told me that!” His face fell as he grasped the sense of what he’d said. “Ratbag means the other you.”
The Other Ranger’s brow furrowed. “It seems odd, knowing these things. I’m sure I’ve never seen mint, or pine-needles before.”
Course he hadn’t. He’d been spawned from a pit then thrown in the fighting ring before he knew which way was down from up, and since then, had had the chance to see nothing but the view from his old slave-cage and the inside of this tent. A wonderful thought occurred to Ratbag: so what if the Other Gravewalker didn’t know all of his herb-lore as yet? Because there was nothing stopping Ratbag from teaching him. He could pass on what he himself had learned, just as Talion had done.
“Ratbag can show you,” on an impulse the Orc told him, “some day, when you and me get out of here, we’ll - “
His smile faded as their gazes met. They both understood the unspoken truth of it, because the Stranger was never going anywhere, was he?
“Then that’ll be our plan,” the Man said, exactly as if he didn’t know full well that his days were numbered, his cards were marked, and that he hadn’t much time left in this world. The smile he gave Ratbag was as kind and as honest as it always was, and contained not a trace of self-pity. “I’ll look forward to it.”
Afterwards Ratbag stood in Stranger’s shadow, fidgeting awkwardly. With weary acceptance the thought came to him that there was no longer any need for him to tarry, since in all likelihood Stranger would soon be moving on in the world and out of Ratbag’s highly restricted circle of acquaintances. The Orc was realist enough to recognize that he’d surely have no further use for him, not now that Stranger had burgeoning prospects and friends of his own in high places, et cetera.
So he turned towards the doorway of the tent. “Ratbag’s tired,” he said. “It’s been a long day. He thinks it’s about time he should be going, shouldn’t he?”
At once Other Gravewalker took a pointed step toward the tent’s entrance, moving deliberately across Ratbag’s path. He wasn’t quite using the bulk of his body to prevent him from leaving, but neither was he making any attempt to get out of the Orc’s way.
“I don’t think so, Ratbag,” he told him.
The Orc’s ears swivelled forward towards him, seeming all of their own accord. “No?”
Stranger was looking down his nose at him and shaking his head, slowly. “No. You know as well as I do that your place is here, with me.”
And for the first time, in Stranger’s voice Ratbag could hear something of the Original Talion’s Elf-originated imperiousness; that ‘You will obey!’ tone of command; of absolute assurance. Ratbag found it disconcerting; how couldn’t he! But at the same time he couldn’t deny that – owing to all kinds of previous associations - it held a certain frisson for him, too.
“That’s fine, Stranger,” Ratbag said, hurrying to mollify him. “That suits Ratbag down to the ground. It’s not as if he really had anywhere to go or anything. He was just asking, wasn’t he?” Feeling uncertain, he looked around the Spartan furnishings of the tent. “So. Where should he ….?”
For a moment the Other Gravewalker also looked almost as at a loss as he was. “If you’re tired you could try lying down….on there?” He couldn’t keep a question out of his voice as he indicated his narrow trestle-bed.
Oh yes. Ratbag had been hoping he might say that. And for that reason perhaps he was a little too quick in his reply: “Stranger? You coming for a lie down with me?”
The Man watched with a slight smile on his lips as Ratbag jumped onto the bed and lay on his back, stretching, luxuriously.
He nodded. “Yes. I’ve something to do and then I’ll come and join you.”
The bed the Orc was lying on was only a folding wooden frame, criss-crossed by strips of canvas, but to Ratbag’s tired, aching muscles it felt heavenly. Stranger, at least in this respect he had to admit, had been dead right. Being in here with him was much, much better than the two of them having to sit outside on the ground, getting rained upon.
The physical and emotional anguish of the day, followed now by unaccustomed comfort, privacy, and Ratbag had to say it, the illusion of safety, to have the Other Gravewalker there, watching over him. They worked together to make his eyelids heavy, and in no time at all Ratbag was beginning to doze. He was roused a moment later however, by the sensation of a familiar-smelling Caragor-skin blanket being spread over him.
He blinked, muzzy-headed, up at his companion. “You brought that with you?”
Stranger’s smile broadened. “Well, I had to,” he said, “since it’s ‘only a borrow’. I only ever had the loan of it, you see.” As the Orc grumbled drowsily back at him he pulled the covering snug up around Ratbag’s shoulders. “Yes, I brought it with me Ratbag. Of course I did.”
Ratbag came awake a short while later, with the Caragor-hide lying warm and heavy across his back. It was minutes or it was hours later, he couldn’t’ve said. Other Gravewalker hadn’t yet joined him. He was still alone in the trestle-bed.
Stranger was over on the opposite side of the tent, with Ratbag’s basin of herb-tincture beside him.
Completely naked, did Ratbag mention?
He had a lantern lit and the yellow light was shining soft and warm on the smooth paleness of his skin. Once again Ratbag felt that familiar clutch-and-wrench sensation in his breast when he saw what the Other Gravewalker was doing. He was trying to clean himself, just as had been the First Ranger’s daily habit. Stranger, it seemed, was just as averse to dirt and a lack of personal cleanliness as the original version of him.
After swirling Ratbag’s wash-cloth through the water, he wrung it out, then used it on the back of his neck and his underarms. His face, shoulders, and upper body were already damp, and had a recently-scrubbed look.
Rewetting his cloth he crouched down, his legs apart and, with an intrepid look, reached back to clean beneath and between. For a moment he rubbed with a few efficient, diligent strokes back and forth across his knob and his ball-sack, the crack of his arse -
Ratbag’s eyes felt burning-hot in their sockets just to be looking at him. The simple thought of what the Other Gravewalker was doing brought him almost to the point of spontaneously combusting. He must have made some involuntary kind of noise or exclamation just then because with a sharp movement Stranger turned his head towards him.
“Oh. Ratbag.” His face relaxed. He gestured towards the remains of the herb-water. “I thought I’d use this. I hope you don’t mind?”
“No Stranger.” Ratbag only brought it for you. He does – he’ll do anything for you. “Knock yourself out.”
Stranger got to his feet, in the process allowing Ratbag to get a good and proper look at him, full-length complete and head to foot.
He had broad shoulders. Narrower hips. An exceeding well-built, but not overtly muscular frame. Athletically understated; of course he was, because no matter which version of Talion Ratbag was dealing with, there was never going to be anything obvious, or overly conspicuous about him. All in all he was beautifully put together.
And he seemed to have retained few, if any traces of the usual Mannish self-consciousness: quite the contrary. Ratbag had no doubts at all that the Original Talion would’ve been blushing pink to the tips of his ears to have been found by Ratbag in a situation such as this.
Perhaps, Ratbag thought to himself, perhaps Stranger’s apparent sang-froid regarding the concept of nakedness and being naked hearkened back to some Orcish element in his nature. It could well have been another of the side-effects of his having been grown in a vat, couldn’t it? Something else that the whole sorry, sordid process had altered in his brain.
“Thank you,” Stranger was saying, meanwhile. With a grateful smile he turned aside from Ratbag and went back to his basin.
And he had no idea had he, what effect the sight of him, in all of his splendid maleness and beauty was having on certain Cowardly Orcs in his vicinity. The poor, trusting, naïve, innocent!
What was to be done, really, with a Man like him?
“I think I’ll get on then,” Stranger added. “While the water’s still warm.”
The Orc spoke before thinking through any of the implications of his offer. “Ratbag could help. He could help you to clean yourself, some more.”
Stranger, however, seemed ready enough to accept him. “Would you, Ratbag?” he replied. “I haven’t done this before and I’m not sure if I’ve been properly reaching -” he broke off and gestured with his cleaning rag, looking abashed. “If you wouldn’t mind, perhaps you could help me with my back?”
“It’s no problem, Stranger.” Ratbag took the cloth out of his hand. “Maybe make it easier for Ratbag again though? Get so he can reach all of you, I mean.”
Once again, Stranger obliged. He went down gracefully onto his hands and knees and stayed with his head hanging, as Ratbag used his cloth to clean across his upper back and neck, then down the insides of his arms. It wasn’t cold, in their tent, and the herb-infused water was at much the same temperature as their surroundings, and yet from time to time as Ratbag worked on him he’d catch his breath, and shiver.
The last long, firm strokes of Ratbag’s cloth down Stranger’s back had him sighing out loud, and as he arched his back, Ratbag, for a moment, stood there, utterly mesmerized by the stretch and flex and play of muscles across his shoulders and down the length of his spine.
Ratbag couldn’t help himself. His stick was hard as wood. It had been since he’d woken in the bed and first set eyes on him, and he didn’t think he could last another second without finding out what it would be like to properly hold, and touch him.
Stranger made a soft, surprised sound of appreciation as Ratbag laid his bare hand flat over the bruises on his flank and held it for a moment there. His skin felt much warmer, but was just as smooth and pliant as Ratbag had been expecting. Again Ratbag didn’t think, or at least not far beyond at that moment more than anything, his simple need to know.
He extended his exploration.
Neither of them spoke as Ratbag began stroking curious fingertips over Stranger’s chest and shoulders, then the backs of his legs, and hips. At one point Ratbag’s thumb grazed across his nipple. It contracted quickly, hardening into a stiff, dark-pink upstanding little bud.
It was nothing personal, Ratbag reminded himself, even as Stranger hid his face against his side, shuddering. No more than a simple reflex. Much the same thing would’ve no doubt happened with anyone, doing anything.
By now they had moved beyond any pretext of this being Ratbag helping him to wash in areas that were difficult to reach. And if it was also becoming increasingly difficult for Ratbag not to notice that the Stranger might be becoming…stimulated in other, unintended ways and places by what he was doing, then that was no more than a perfectly natural bodily reaction, too. Or so the Orc insisted to himself. Ratbag knew there was no chance whatever of his own crude and carnal impulses possibly being reciprocated.
“Ratbag!” Stranger sort of half-whispered / half-groaned his name, at the same time making an impulsive grab for the Orc’s hand. It was purely force of habit that made Ratbag snatch his hand away and he cursed himself as he did so, because, at that moment Stranger gave a sharp, pained-sounding exhale. His flanks, and the muscles in his thighs and of that gloriously put-together arse of his were bunching and tensed. Trembling all over, he strained forwards with his hips.
Ratbag’s heart began pounding in his chest. His breath his stuttered to a stop in his throat and he faltered, honestly fearing he might have forgotten how to resume breathing. It was all wrong; this couldn’t – this shouldn’t - be happening and yet here Stranger was, hard, it was plain to see how aroused he was – and right in front of Ratbag his climax was on him and he was, he was -
The noise he made as his orgasm wrenched through him was more a sound of anguish than of pleasure, yet still he tried to bite it back and stifle it against the Orc’s side. His hands grasped a double-handful of nothingness as he released himself, his fingers flexing convulsively on the ground in front of him.
For a frozen moment there was nothing in the world that Ratbag could do but simply stand and stare at the tableau that lay in front of him.
Oh, Stranger. But what a state he’d gotten himself into. He was, down on all fours, dripping wet all over, with the soft sheen of lamp-light on his skin. Hair in his eyes, and stuck across his face.
Beneath the hard muscles of his stomach, his spear-shaft was standing straight-out and pulsing, the last dregs of his come still dripping out of him. Between his legs there were long streaks and spatters of it on the earth floor, only just beginning to seep in.
His face as he stared up at the Orc was congested, wide-eyed with confusion. His mouth looked very red; bee-stung, almost. Ratbag realized he must've been biting down, hard, all through it; biting down on his lips.
Ratbag’s heart went out to him. His poor Tark Bastard. Trying so hard not make noise even as he'd been coming, and all it had taken to get him like this was the touch of an Orc’s hands on his back. Worse than that, a wretch of an Orc like Ratbag. No doubt about it, this was a filthy display: sordid, filthy, and more than a little perverted.
But in spite of it, in spite all of it Ratbag thought that Stranger looked –
He looked shrakhin' perfect.
He managed to meet Ratbag’s gaze only for a moment. The poor Man was, with every fibre of his being, completely and in every way mortified.
“Ratbag, I’m so – “ he broke off and dropped his head. “That was unforgiveable,” he said, his voice vibrating with distress. “Please believe me, I’d no intention of anything like that happening. I didn’t realize until it was – too late and –“ he stopped and forced himself to look Ratbag in the eyes before continuing – “you have my word it’ll never happen again.”
He might have had Talion’s memories, true, but on the other hand he wasn’t quite the same as Talion, was he? On account of this version - the Stranger – being newly-minted. Everything was new to him, sights and sensations and with a sinking feeling the thought occurred to Ratbag that, Orcs being Orcs, there was no reason for him to believe that the Stranger had ever had a kindly hand laid on him before. The unfortunate, unlucky bastard. He’d been kicked and beaten, yes. Spat-upon and degraded; every one of his experiences up until this point calculated to humiliate, and cause him pain.
Ratbag berated himself for having ought to have known better. In the light of all of Stranger’s past experiences it was no wonder, really, that the vaguest hint of pleasurable sensation had been enough to overwhelm him.
Stranger meanwhile had begun a hasty scrambling to cover himself, hurriedly pulling on his old slave tunic and leggings. “I’m sorry,” he told Ratbag. He wouldn’t look at him. “I can’t stay here. I must - it’s better I go.”
Ratbag knew, he could see then with utter clarity where that course of action was bound to take him. Away from Ratbag, onward to disaster and quickly after it, a pointless, ugly death.
So he stopped him in his tracks, stepping into his path to block the way just as, hours ago, the Other Gravewalker had done to prevent his leaving. The tactic proved more effective than he’d been expecting. Stranger shied away from him, ducking back to avoid his touch - much in the manner that a fresh-trained Caragor would cringe and flinch from the Orcish whip-master who’d had the task of breaking him.
Ratbag was hurt, and more than a little stunned by Stranger’s new-found and obvious aversion to him. But, he supposed, it was no more than exactly what he deserved, given the unwarranted liberties he’d just been taking. Making an effort, he kept his tone light and even. “Where you planning on rushing off to then, Stranger?”
(Slave cages? Fighting pit?)
He shook his head. He didn’t reply.
The Orc gathered his courage, such as he had of it, together with his resolve. “If anyone has to go, it ought to be Ratbag.”
That got his attention. “Absolutely not. You’re safe here and - there’s no reason you should be the one to suffer because of my –“ breaking off, he coloured up and ground out, unable to keep a tone of bitterness and self-recrimination from his voice - “my lack of restraint.”
“Well Stranger,” Ratbag tried his best and gave him a lopsided grin. “For one thing, this is your tent.”
“My tent?” He muttered, unhappily. “I only ever wanted it for you.”
“Then we’ll share,” Ratbag told him, and then added, with a decisiveness he by no means believed in, or felt: “it’ll be just like before.”
Stranger’s nostrils flared and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in his throat. “You’re being very kind to me.”
Kind to him? In the beginning, he’d barely managed to be civil, and now here Stranger was, reproaching himself on account of Ratbag having just taken despicable liberties with him.
The Man and Orc settled down for the night on opposite sides of the tent. An uneasy silence lay between them.
Things changed between them afterwards, after that troubled night they spent together. It was the first time since their meeting that Ratbag had slept without the warm, reassuring bulk of Stranger beside him. The constant comfort of his presence was something Ratbag had already come to rely upon and even to take for granted, as he soon realized to his dismay.
The camaraderie and easy affection that Man and Orc had once shared were gone, being replaced by strained and awkward silences, and an uncomfortable atmosphere that Stranger was at obvious pains to avoid. He had taken to leaving their shared billet early and returning to it late. He was training, sparring, practicing his skills in combat, subterfuge, and tracking, certainly, but where he spent the time when he wasn’t in the training ring was anyone’s guess.
And as for that thrice-accursed cowl and Dark-Tribe mask! Stranger was now in the habit of wearing the two pieces more or less continually – whenever he was in, as well as outside of their tent. This was in compliance with Gurza’s orders, or so he claimed, and although he would remove the items if Ratbag asked him to, he was obviously reluctant to do so. Even in the absence of his mask, the situation between the two of them remained so tense that it was impossible to sustain a normal conversation.
This state of affairs dragged on for upwards of a week until, seemingly out of the blue one afternoon, the Other Gravewalker took it upon himself to end it.
“Ratbag,” Stranger called, as he approached. That day he had returned from – whatever his daily activities consisted of – early, very early: there were hours to go yet before sunset. He stood in the entrance awning of the tent, looking self-conscious, but at the same time hopeful as he greeted him. “Is there any chance you could spare a moment?”
For once the hood and metal face-plate that had come to be his customary attire were gone. Stranger’s face looked paler than usual but was clean, and his beard looked freshly-shaven too.
He’d been out hunting, and had brought with him a catch consisting of a pair of Hell-hawks, that he’d strung together by a twist of grass tied around their necks. Stranger held them out for Ratbag to inspect, much in the manner of someone extending a peace-offering.
“I thought I’d cook these for us,” he said. “They ought to make a welcome change from our usual fare of –“ he paused, evidently searching for the correct word.
“Nameless slop?” Ratbag suggested, just at the same time as Stranger settled on: “gruel.”
Stranger puffed his breath out in one of his quiet, amused huffs. “It took a while,” he explained, “but I’ve been working with Beezul on – well, on crossbow design.”
“Crossbow design?” Ratbag interjected, with interest. “Don’t you find yourself favouring a longbow, then? Not like Talion?”
He seemed to be at a loss. “I hadn’t thought about it before,” Stranger said, scratching his head, “or Talion, for that matter. But a longbow – well. It doesn’t seem much of an Orcish weapon.”
“Anyway, as it turns out,” he went on, obviously beginning to warm to his subject, “Beezul’s more than adept. It took time to adjust the firing strength and select a weight of bolt that doesn’t” – he broke off and with a grimace, said - “break those poor animals apart as soon as it hits them.”
Ratbag thought of the many Hell-hawks he’d seen shot. The impact tended to obliterate the unfortunate creatures completely, dissolving them in a sad spray of blood and entrails in mid-air.
“The Orc Archers take shots at Hell-hawks for target practice,” Ratbag nodded, “but Talion used to hunt them sometimes.”
“Did he?” Stranger said, the faintest trace of a frown-line beginning to crease his brow.
“Yes, and he told Ratbag the old Ranger’s recipe for them, too.” With a crafty expression he squinted up at the Other Gravewalker. “What you do is you get a fresh Hell-hawk, right, and you put it in a worn-out leather shoe. Next, wrap the whole thing in sweet meadow hay and cover it over with mud, so it’s sealed all in. You have to roast it in a fire pit for the next two days and when it’s done you break open the mud and the hay covering, being dead, dead careful, right –“
He grinned at Stranger, in anticipation of the punchline –
“Then you throw away the Hell-hawk and eat the shoe.”
Stranger, however, wasn’t laughing. Instead he was frowning down at the brace of birds he was holding in his hands. “Oh,” he said. “That isn’t something I remember – at least, not as far as I know.”
“No, it was only – it’s supposed to be a joke,” Ratbag told him, dismayed by his reaction. “Those things can make good eating, done right.”
“Well then,” Stranger replied, giving him an encouraging smile, “you’ll have to help me to cook them properly, won’t you?”
“Ratbag’s game if you are,” the Orc told him, much relieved.
They prepared the birds together, working side by side, and if the Orc could see Stranger biting the sides of his lips to try to stop himself from smiling every time Ratbag gobbled down a spare gobbet of intestine or fragment of fresh liver, he didn’t begrudge him it. No, not at all. The Orc had missed the Other Gravewalker’s company and he was glad to see his spirits lifting, if only over such a little thing as this. The thing was that Ratbag wanted it to continue, the warm companionship between them – he needed to hold on to it. And for that to happen, as he well knew, first they would have to clear the air.
“You and me, we ought to talk,” Ratbag began, once the Hell-hawks were dressed and spitted. “About what happened the night you got your amour.”
“I’d sooner not,” Stranger replied, whole-heartedly.
But Ratbag went ahead and said his piece, doing his best, for Stranger’s benefit, to explain away the uncomfortable facts of all that had passed between them. “What happened was just one of those things though Stranger, wasn’t it?” he told him. “Nothing worth worrying about. It was nothing personal and it doesn’t need to change anything, not between you and me. It’s not like it meant anything anyway. Not really.”
Stranger had stopped what he’d been doing and was staying very still. “What happened between us – wasn’t personal,” he repeated slowly, as if he was having trouble processing what Ratbag had said. After a moment his chest heaved up and down in a deep, resigned sigh. “And it didn’t mean anything to you.”
Ratbag, however, was so relieved simply that he and the Other Gravewalker were speaking again that he forged ahead, paying no attention to the dismay that would otherwise have been clear to hear in his companion’s voice. “Same thing would’ve happened to anyone,” the Orc ploughed on, “seeing how this is all new to you. And as for Ratbag,” he said as he broke off with a self-depreciating grin, “between the two of us, it’s been a long for him, too. Means he’s out of practice, isn’t he?”
“Practice?” Stranger echoed. “What we did that night, was you, practicing?” He sounded stricken.
Ratbag flicked his ears in irritation. Why was Other Gravewalker being so stubborn, and insisting upon getting hold of the wrong end of the stick? “That wasn’t really what Ratbag was saying,” he countered quickly, “but either way, wouldn’t it be for the best if we - just - forgot about it? Then we could go back to how it was before, between the two of us.” He rested his fingertips on the Other Ranger’s forearm and stared up at him with a beseeching look. “Ratbag’s missed you, Stranger, hasn’t he, and – “
But the Other Gravewalker wasn’t listening. With hurried, jerky movements he had clambered to his feet and was drawing back from the Orc – recoiling from him, really.
“Ratbag,” he said, shaking his head, barely able to bring himself to look at him, “I…appreciate your honesty. I see now that I’ve been….foolish, to have misread the situation between us, but -” he broke off and his breath went out of him in a short, unhappy huff. “As ever you’ve managed to make your feelings perfectly clear.”
By that stage he was already half-way out the door. Ratbag stayed where he was on the ground, pole-axed, as he watched Stranger hurrying away across the compound. What was he supposed to do, run after him?
Nice one, Ratbag, the Orc thought, berating himself for being a ruddy fool who just didn’t know when to keep his shrakin’ mouth shut. That had only gone and made things a hundred times, bloody, worse.
Their shared tent didn’t count as a much of a place of safety exactly, because the sad truth was that there were no places of that kind in Mordor. Ratbag had come to regard it as a sort of refuge nevertheless and so, when he returned, late one night from an evening spent in aimless, solitary mooching to find an Orcish soldier already there and waiting for him, for a moment of heart-stopping panic he was horrified to find that illusion of sanctuary disturbed.
Ratbag had been ambushed - beaten - set upon by his fellow Orcs and Uruks in ones, in twos, and groups more times than he could count, in retribution for transgressions both imaginary and deserved, and the inevitability of impending punishment was a fact of life that from very early on, he’d had no option but to accept. All that was left for him at this point was to try his best to take his medicine, and perhaps to wonder ‘what has Ratbag gone and done this time?’
But it was only Stranger, dozing in the middle of their tent. In his Tribal armour and with his cowl and mask, as ever, fitted in place, it was no wonder Ratbag had taken him for one of his fellow Uruks: there was no doubt that he looked every inch the part, save for the paleness of his skin. The Man was sitting slumped, with his back leaning against the centre-pole of the tent. The pose looked uncomfortable and his sleep was troubled, with his breath hitching in and out in fitful stops and starts. Ratbag was careful to keep his distance as he delivered a tentative prod to his companion’s shoulder.
With an anguished gasp Stranger started awake and for a moment, both his hands went clawing by instinct at the centre of his chest.
The original Talion had been brought down by a trio of the Alchemist’s bodyguards and their troops, and, before the harvesting of blood, and bone, and body fluids that went into the making of the Other Gravewalker began, a blade through the heart had been their means of killing him. This information Stranger had once let slip - but afterwards, and with uncharacteristic vehemence had refused point blank to discuss any further. Knowing as he did that Stranger had acquired some of the original version’s memories, Ratbag supposed it would be too much to hope he’d been spared the pain and anguish of the Ranger’s final moments. Judging from his reaction just then, he’d been unfortunate enough to have retained a vivid and obvious recollection of that harrowing experience, too.
“Stranger,” Ratbag began, “you all right?”
The Other Gravewalker’s answer to that was no more than a wordless grunt.
Now wasn’t this just marvellous! Seemed Stranger was becoming more and more Orc-like with every passing day, but the thought of it was too much. It was too much, and Ratbag couldn’t bear it.
“Take it off,” he pleaded, “your mask. You already know how Ratbag feels about it. So take - that thing - off. Please.”
A lengthy pause ensued, for the duration of which the Orc honestly couldn’t’ve said whether Stranger, behind his mask, was looking back at Ratbag, or was gazing off into the distance, or had even fallen back to sleep. Then he reached round one-handed, very grudgingly. Having loosened the fastenings that held his mask and cowl in place, he let both pieces drop to the floor.
He turned red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes towards Ratbag. “And how does Ratbag feel?”
The Orc’s answer was emphatic. “He hates it. He hates seeing you wearing it.”
But with the hated mask removed, Ratbag could now smell the stale taint of grog on his companion's breath. “You’ve been drinking!” he accused.
With a weary sigh the Other Gravewalker got to his feet. Ratbag could see that he was keeping the left portion of his body carefully turned away from him. Hurrying round to that side the Orc extracted his left hand out from where it was hidden, behind his back. Stranger grunted with pain as Ratbag tried to uncurl his tightly closed fist. To his dismay the skin Ratbag glimpsed on the palm of his hand looked reddened; blistered and scorched.
“What is that?” he demanded, “what’ve you done?”
With a terse movement Stranger prised his arm out of Ratbag’s grasp. “It’s nothing.” His tone was flat. He looked on dully as Ratbag, with insistent haste, set about working his clenched fingers open for the second time.
“Stranger.” What he found there made Ratbag shiver with a profound sense of foreboding. In the centre of the Other Gravewalker’s palm was a fresh burn-mark, made in the form of an ugly, jagged-edged sigil, shaped like an eye. The symbol of the Dark Tribe had been branded deep into his skin.
It was in same place as the Hammer had used his mace to crush Talion’s hand.
“The Alchemist was in the mood to put his mark on me, that’s all,” Stranger told him.
“And he wanted to have you branded there?”
“If it had to be done I asked for it to be placed so I could see it.”
“You mean this was your own idea?” Ratbag was incensed by what he’d said. “Why the shrakh would you want to see be able to see it?”
Other Gravewalker’s chest heaved up and down in another tired sigh. “I felt I needed a reminder I suppose, of what I am, and of my place. It seems a pointless gesture now, but I thought it made sense enough at the time.”
“But he’s put his brand right where Talion’s scar is!”
“Has he,” Stranger said using the same flat tone, showing little interest. He hunched his shoulders and pulled his hand away.
He’d already had despair enough to contend with, and now came an unhealthy dose of self-loathing, clicking along as if on cue. Looked like Ratbag would be able to tick both those attributes off his check-list. Stranger’s Orcish tendencies were increasing by the minute and how long could it be, really, before - as it inevitably did with everyone, that self-directed venom turned outward from within? Ratbag couldn’t help it. He swore under his breath even as a treacherous, hiccupping sob forced its way out of him. His poor Stranger! To the depths of his black heart the Orc feared for him.
At the very first sign of distress however, Stranger was beside him. Immediately casting aside his own pain, which must have been considerable, and unhappiness he was filled with concern - of course he was, and how like him. As if it wasn’t Ratbag who counted as being the more experienced party in this situation; Ratbag whose job it was to care for, and to try his miserable best to protect the Other Gravewalker, on account of how far he’d already fallen, and the way he’d completely lost his heart, to -
“Ratbag?” Stranger said, interrupting his chain of thought. With a gentle movement he rested his uninjured hand on the Orc’s wrist. “Why are you crying?”
“That shrakh-pile Gurza,” Ratbag snarled, through his teeth. “Oh, but Ratbag hates him. There was no need for him to go and do this to you, on top of all of the rest of it.”
“But I wouldn’t be here in the first place if it wasn’t for Gurza, Ratbag,” Stranger explained, steady and forbearing as ever. “I’m sure he’s well within his rights.”
“You’re not his possession!” Ratbag protested. “He’s got no right to treat you like that. Marking you – hurting you, whenever he feels like, like you’re his plaything –“
“But he did make me, Ratbag,” Stranger interjected. Dropping his gaze he concluded in that patient, understated way of his - “and that’s all I am, to him - or that I should be, to anyone. It’s no more than I can expect.”
“You’re talking like – but this isn’t – it isn’t just deserts!” the Orc spluttered, outraged. “You don’t deserve this!”
“I don’t count as any kind of special case,” Stranger insisted, “and if I don’t deserve this – well, then none of us do. Neither does anyone.”
Did Stranger hear himself? Lumping himself in alongside all of Orc-kind? The little Uruk stared at him, nonplussed. But what use was there in them arguing about it? “At least let Ratbag help,” he suggested. “Please, Stranger. He can make it feel better. He promises.”
Stranger hesitated, regarding him with a wary look, before uncurling and offering his left hand. He allowed Ratbag take hold of it with obvious trepidation, flinching in spite of himself as the Orc bent his head towards him.
At this distance the smell of Stranger’s poor, scorched flesh filled his nostrils. Ratbag felt his stomach turn over, queasy with a mixture of sickening pang of appetite, and longing. He stamped down on his baser, feral instincts at once; an easy enough task for an Orc like Ratbag, for whom such impulses were never very strong.
Moving his mouth to the middle of the Other Gravewalker’s hand, Ratbag put his tongue out, and being careful to keep it as soft and as flat as possible, licked a slow swipe across the centre of Stranger’s palm. He did his best to be gentle. He was as gentle and as careful as an Orc could be, and made sure to keep his lips covering the sharp edges of his teeth.
It would take a moment. Ratbag knew that. So with his head bowed, he kept on licking and lapping assiduously. As he did so Ratbag was relieved to realize that the compulsion to bite, and tear at his companion’s flesh had faded to almost nothing, and now constituted no more than a muted, low-level clamouring; no difficulty at all for him to ignore. And if the heady, savoury taste was making Ratbag’s mouth water, so much the better. That would only help with what he was doing.
In fact he’d go so far as to say that the treatment relied upon it.
“Oh.” Other Gravewalker let out the breath he’d been holding. “Oh.”
The Orc grinned to himself. As the pain in Stranger’s hand receded he could feel some of the tension beginning to ebb out of him. Ratbag had often had to resort to licking his own wounds in the past; often enough to know that some constituent or other – something that was in his saliva did an effective job of numbing pain.
Stranger meanwhile was watching Ratbag with a fixed expression, utterly rapt. “Did you –“ he began, “I expect you used to do this to help…him, as well, did you?”
Ratbag raised his head, blindsided. What was he bringing up Talion again for, when there’d just been such heat and sensual warmth between them? Blinking in confusion, he licked at a line of spittle that was wet on his chin.
Stranger tracked the movement helplessly with his eyes.
“What,” Ratbag croaked, because of a sudden his throat was dry, “d’you mean the Other One?”
“No, Ratbag didn’t,” the Orc replied, still wondering what his companion was getting at. “Talion never needed me to. He healed too quickly, didn’t he?”
“Then this must be something new,” Stranger murmured. He reached out with his good hand and seeming surprised by his own audacity, used his thumb to clear the remaining moisture from Ratbag’s chin.
“That’s all right,” he said, and his mouth twisted into something like a self-deprecating smile. “I find I don’t mind being used for practice, now and again.” Then with his fingertips still resting on Ratbag’s chin he tilted the Orc’s face up, pressed his lips to his, and kissed him.
For a hairsbreadth moment Ratbag froze. Stranger’s eyes were tightly closed but Ratbag had flung his open wide in surprise - which meant that as the moment extended and the Orc didn’t react,
- because nothing like this had ever happened to him and he didn’t know how to react –
and didn’t react, he could see a little, tell-tale frown from appearing on his companion’s brow as his face began to fall into too-familiar lines of anxiousness and doubt.
So Ratbag closed his eyes too. Marvelling at the warm softness of Stranger’s lips, as well as the unexpected, yet sweetly strange intimacy that came with this kind of contact, he pressed his mouth against his companion’s and did his best to return his embrace. Other Gravewalker’s arms went round Ratbag at once and drew him close as a small, shivering sound escaped him.
Ratbag couldn’t help but answer with a series of frantic whimpers of his own, uttered close against Stranger’s face. Ratbag could feel him smiling against his mouth as he absorbed the noises. His arms were still wrapped around Ratbag, holding onto him tightly.
It was a long kiss, sweet as it was agonizingly chaste. It went on for moment after moment, with neither Man nor Orc willing to break the fragile new connection between them.
But they had to break apart eventually, of course, and when they did, Ratbag’s head was spinning. Dizzy as he felt with pleasure, excitement, bliss – there was something vital, something dreadfully important he knew he had to remember to tell Stranger; to explain to him, and he seized on one of the things the Other Gravewalker had said.
“Practice?” he asked, “is that what you think? That Ratbag’s only practicing?”
“Yes,” Stranger nodded. “I know what you said and I remember what you told me. I understand how lonely you are and how difficult this must be for you, the way I -” he stopped as if he’d been distracted, but all he did was to run his fingertips slowly, wonderingly, along the top of Ratbag’s eyebrow - “the way I look the same as him. It’s all right. I know how much you miss your beloved Talion, but I -” he paused, sounding unhappy, but resigned, “I’ve missed you, too.”
“Stranger, you don’t understand! Ratbag doesn’t want anyone else except –“
But he spoke over him, refusing to hear him out. “Ratbag, please, don’t,” he insisted, “You don’t need to tell me again. There’s no need for either of us to say any more.” By now he’d drawn the Orc, unresisting, into his lap. Stranger’s hands went petting at him, on his bare skin and over Ratbag’s outer clothes and jerkin, painfully hesitant at first, as if unsure whether the Orc would tolerate the contact.
“Oh – Ratbag,” he breathed, “come here.” He nuzzled with his nose and mouth across the planes of Ratbag’s face, feeling, inhaling, exploring him. “I’ve missed you. We’ve done enough talking and I’m not like Talion.” He huffed out a short breath and Ratbag could hear the smile in his voice as he spoke. “I was never very good at it.”
They lived together, after that, and at night they shared a bed. The close-quarters nature of their surroundings was such that there was no other option but for them to be intimate - and they were intimate, to an extent - and yet their interactions remained oddly platonic.
Before they fell asleep they might spoon together, the length of Stranger’s body hunched in a protective curl round Ratbag. Or if they lay face to face sometimes he’d interlace his fingers with Ratbag’s, and press both their hands against his breast.
With every day that passed there was increasing warmth, and companionship between them. It reassured Ratbag. It felt comforting.
It was ridiculously frustrating.
But, Ratbag was an Orc and he knew better than to ask questions: he took what he could get.
He was an Orc, and not given to feats of introspection. Still, he knew that it was all tangled up with what had happened on that fateful night, together with its aftermath, an experience aversive enough to scare anyone off, seemingly.
With a Man - and an Orc - thrown together in such proximity however, it was inevitable that certain incidents would happen.
It started innocently enough, with an excursion. Of late Gurza the Alchemist had been more and more demanding of Stranger’s time and presence, and as a result the Other Gravewalker seemed more melancholic and distracted than usual. Whatever Gurza’s plans for Stranger involved, it was obvious that they had been taking their toll on him.
The Orc was doubly surprised, then, when Stranger approached him one morning.
“Spend the day with me?” he said.
“Haven’t you got to be –“ Ratbag waved his hand in a vague, all-encompassing movement, “busy with sparring and training and planning campaigns and all the usual shrakh?”
“Training and campaigns and shrakh,” Stranger repeated, his lips twisting into a wry, tired smile. “No, Ratbag. As it happens I don’t have anything like that planned. Not today.”
He led Ratbag out past the outskirts of the encampment and in the direction of the riverbank, coming to a stop in a wooded hollow well out of sight and hearing of the Alchemist’s Orcs. On either side of the little depression were stands of stunted Ironbarks, the only type of tree scrubby and tenacious enough to be able to flourish in Mordor’s wastes. Such was their robustness that they were said to be able to withstand even the intense, vapour-heated breath of a Fire-Drake.
Ratbag wouldn’t know anything about that. He’d heard of fire-breathing dragons but had never seen one for himself – and didn’t want to! It all sounded a bit old-school: Balrogs; Fall of Gondolin; straying into stuff of legends territory, to him. But the Ironbarks were tough trees, and they were still here. The peeling strands of their dull grey bark hung in ribbons from the trunks and upper branches and shifted gently in the quiet air.
On one side of the clearing was a heap of blocks of worked stone and part of a vaulted wall, the ground-level remains of an old Orcish watch-tower, maybe. In the lee of the standing archway there stood a Caragor cage, complete with a white-furred, blue-eyed occupant.
Ratbag, who had come to have a keen sense of self-preservation where these kinds of things were concerned, was also quick to notice that the Caragor-cage itself had been left unlocked.
The Caragor within kept half an eye on them as they drew nearer. At length it stood up, stretched, and yawned expansively, its lips peeling back from the enormous, protruding upper fangs to expose a mouthful of yet more sharp, serrated teeth. The beast seemed calm enough for the present however, and waited on the threshold of the cage, blinking in the sunlight.
Stranger crouched down beside it and busied himself with examining the Caragor’s right front foot. He seemed satisfied with what he’d seen and after a moment slapped the animal companionably across its haunches.
“Go away and then come back again!” he told it, pointing towards a fallen tree trunk that lay on the far edge of the clearing, a little more than a furlong away. He watched with a critical eye as the Caragor, having made its way out of the cage, began to gather speed, progressing from a trot, to a canter, and then a lazy lope. After it had galloped in a wide circle around the fallen tree it swung round, completing the return leg of its run in a series of impossibly long, bounding strides.
As it approached Stranger’s face relaxed. “I’ve been worried about his gait,” he told Ratbag, “but it’s looking much better. There’s barely a trace of a limp any more.”
Realization dawned. “This is what you’ve been doing, all this time,” Ratbag exclaimed. So he hadn’t been avoiding Ratbag for all those weeks before, not as such. No, he’d been spending his time playing nursemaid to this thing.
Stranger turned towards him. “He’d been caught in a claw-trap and left in it too long. The wound on his foot was infected - festering. The Uruk Cavalrymen said it wasn’t worth bothering about as he was only a worthless pinkskin.” The parallels were obvious and he broke off for a moment, frowning.
Ratbag nodded, acutely aware that he was about to state the very obvious. “It’s on account of the colour,” he said, pointing towards the animal’s near-naked underbelly, “and how it shows through the fur, see? The Caragor-trainers like to say that ones like that are weaker than the others.” He eyed the fanged, armoured beast warily. Caragors were as violent as they were violently unpredictable, and as he knew from experience, it was never a good idea to let your guard down around them. “But Ratbag thinks it’s just a saying. There can’t be anything to it, not really.”
“I thought so too. But the Pack Master gave me leave to tend to him, if I wanted. I cleaned the wound with grog first, the way you showed me. He didn’t like that. Did you?” Stranger murmured, chucking the great beast under its chin.
By way of reply the Caragor huffed a gusty, sour-meat scented breath in the Other Gravewalker’s direction. Then it collapsed onto its side. It lay where it was, directing idle love-pats at the Man using soft, sheath-clawed paws and groaning to itself in impossible contentment. Stranger, having followed the animal down was lying half-length beside it, kneading with his knuckles into the folds of loose skin at the sides of the Caragor’s jaws and its scruff.
Ratbag blinked, hard, at the strange scene being played out in front of him. He’d spent time around Caragors – a certain amount of time being mauled by Caragors, if you wanted to be strictly accurate about it, but had never seen one of them doing that before. “What did you do next, Stranger?” he said.
“After that I used some of the healing plants and herbs that – well, that Talion knows about.” Stranger stopped, and when he went on again sounded apologetic. “I know they’re not my memories, but I didn’t think there’d be any harm in it.”
“’Course not,” Ratbag told him, wondering what on earth there was for him to be worrying about. Then, to change the subject he added - “you taken him out for a spin as yet then?” To make his point he did a little mime of himself, riding on a Caragor’s back. “Gone for a little test-run?”
Stranger shook his head. “Do you –“ and here he regarded Ratbag with such a hopeful, honest look that the Orc’s heart felt as if it was turning over a little, in his chest, “d’you think he’d let me?”
Ratbag considered the question. “They do let Talion onto their backs, but only after he’s –“ Stranger looked on, seeming very much at a loss, as Ratbag used his left hand to make a significant gesture, centering it to one side of his forehead. “Put his glowy blue brand on them, Ratbag means.”
“Ah.” The Other Gravewalker’s face fell. “You’re saying that Talion can only ride on their backs after he’s dominated them.”
“Well, yeah, but that’s on account of him being a Man – and a Wraith to boot, Ratbag’ll bet. It’s different with Orcs. We don’t dominate Caragors - we break them. But you -”
He stopped short and stared. In the hazy morning sunlight Stranger was lying in the grass with his Caragor, dusty motes of pollen from the iron-bark trees drifting all around. The animal had rolled onto its back. Its mighty forepaws were wrapped round Stranger’s shoulders, in a pose that under other circumstances would signify that it was right on the brink of delivering its deadly killing bite. Ratbag watched, but no bite came. Instead this Caragor was licking the sides of Stranger’s face. The reason for the beast’s strange behaviour when it came to him was unthinkable; unthinkable as it was obvious.
“That Caragor,” Ratbag said, wonderingly. “The bloody thing - it loves you.”
“Oh - I’m sure I wouldn’t go as far as saying that,” Stranger replied, darting Ratbag a brief, uncertain look. He hunched forwards where he was sitting, at the same time dipping his head so that his hair swung down across and hid his face.
The gesture was absolutely characteristic for him as Ratbag now realized; he must have seen Stranger do the same thing a hundred times. The only odd thing when he came to think of it, was that Ratbag couldn’t recall having ever seen the same from Talion.
What did come to him instead was a vivid mental picture of Other Gravewalker, soaked to the skin in the driving rain, pitching up on the losing side in yet another arena battle. The beleaguered Man, struggling to keep his footing with his feet constantly slipping sideways in the muck, howls from the Uruks of the Alchemist’s camp reverberating all around him -
“Man-filth! Worthless glob! Tarkish shrakh-streak….Pink-skin scum. Disgustin’ -”
Unlike Stranger the original Talion, however, had never been on his knees being taunted in the middle of an Orcish training-ring. That was the sum of Stranger’s life experience and when he most often resorted to it, of course. When he was exhausted, at the end of his tether, with no other option left but to try to conceal his distress and the extent of his physical collapse.
He’d been raised among Orcs and it was no wonder now that the unfortunate sod seemed just as uncomfortable even when he was being paid a compliment. Stood to reason that he might also be a bit lacking in self-confidence, didn’t it?
“Ratbag thinks that means you should definitely go for it,” he told Stranger, because the poor Man still looked deeply unconvinced. “You’ll never know if you don’t give it a try.”
“All right, then.” Squaring his shoulders a little, Other Gravewalker got to his feet. His Caragor followed suit. Stranger spoke to it, gentling it for a moment, hesitated, then swung himself up and onto its back. He had to hold on tight at first because the beast bucked and reared, swinging its head and prancing sideways back and forth on skittish, uncertain paws. But its trust for Stranger was obvious and as he kept on speaking to it in low, reassuring tones, it was quick to quieten again.
“Now, Snowflake, away over there,” Stranger told it, extending his arm to give it direction, “and back again.” He adjusted his position, leaning low over the Caragor’s withers as it sprang forwards, keeping his seat and moving in perfect concert with the animal as it broke into a leaping, bounding run. He guided it round the tree-stump and back again, riding on the Caragor’s back with easy, effortless, grace.
“You’re a natural, Stranger!” Ratbag beamed.
Stranger jumped down beside him. His hair was tousled and he was breathing hard after his run. His eyes were shining and he looked - exhilarated. “It must be muscle memory,” he said. “Some part of me seems to remember just what to do.” He turned to the Orc, clearly set on sharing his experience. “You have to try it for yourself, Ratbag.”
“Uh, maybe not, Stranger, Ratbag doesn’t know about that –“ the Orc began, but Stranger had already taken hold of his hand and without further ado, pushed it under the Caragor’s nose.
“Snowflake, this is Ratbag,” Stranger told it. The Caragor’s head swung towards him and for a long moment Ratbag stood, fixed in the cold fire of the beast’s eyes as it took full measure of him. He was close enough to see its nostrils flaring open then narrowing to slits again as its muzzle wrinkled and it learned his scent.
“Ratbag, Snowflake.” And then, even as Ratbag was opening his mouth to ask his next question, Stranger pre-empted it. “It’s the name Dirhael gave to the pet kitten he had when he was a boy,” he explained. “The little thing was no more than a ball of fluffy white fur when he was small. But he grew up to be the most deadly mouser I’ve ever seen. He kept the Black Gate free of vermin for years.”
“Even the big Mordor-rats?”
“Especially the big Mordor-rats,” Stranger told him solemnly. “Catching them was his specialty.”
“Here,” he said, and with one hand on either side of Ratbag’s waist, more or less lifted the Orc off his feet and straight onto Snowflake’s back. “Up you get - before you change your mind. Let’s see if he’ll take us for a proper run.”
Stranger boosted himself up onto the Caragor’s back behind him. Ratbag had only a split second to feel discombobulated by his companion’s all-encompassing nearness, and the sensation of his arms reaching round him, before they were off.
“Hold on with your knees,” Stranger told him. Wrapping his hands round Ratbag’s, he showed him how to take hold of the large, bony spines that protected the back of Snowflake’s neck. “And hold on tight to these.”
Ratbag did – hanging on for dear life at first. He was far higher off the ground than felt comfortable – or natural, and the bounding, forward motion of the Caragor’s progress was like nothing he had ever experienced before. It was unnerving, and unsettled him. Not that there weren’t certain compensations that came with his position: the solid breadth of his companion’s chest snug and tight at his back for one thing; for another, how close Stranger was behind him: Ratbag’s rump was pressed right into the fork of his companion’s body, nestling squarely against his groin.
The Other Gravewalker’s long legs were bracketing Ratbag’s and his kilt had ridden up, exposing hard-muscled thighs, splayed wide on either side. The poor Orc was all of a flutter; acutely aware of every inch of him. His skin was bare from the top of his metal-inlaid leather greaves and then on, upwards, at least until the lower hem of his battle tunic - and if Stranger was anything like the other Uruks of Ratbag’s acquaintance, he knew that there was every chance that he was equally as naked underneath.
By now Ratbag had had ample experience of being close to him, but that involved lying next to Stranger, quiet in a bed. This time there was movement. There was a tempo, and it was active. Momentum heaved them back and forth with the rhythm of the Caragor’s running. Their movement together wasn’t so very far removed from having the cadence of – well, of fucking. No wonder it was diverting! It was deeply disconcerting.
Poor Ratbag! He did his best to remind himself – for the umpteenth time – that it was neither the time – nor place – for this sort of thing.
“Away – and keep going,” Stranger had instructed his Caragor, and that’s what Snowflake did. He loped with them out of the valley and on until they reached the river.
He trotted along the nearest bank, following the course of the river and keeping to a very leisurely pace. When they came to the inside loop of a wide, shallow meander, Stranger reined the beast to a sudden stop. He dismounted and stood, surveying both sides of the riverbank, upstream and down, with an intent, assessing look.
“If Talion’s memories are anything to go by, this looks to be a promising spot,” he told Ratbag, not that that explained very much in practice.
“Promising for what, Stranger?” the Orc said.
He smiled over his shoulder at him. “Going fishing.”
The Man huffed to himself in quiet amusement. “Don’t tell me you’re not hungry Ratbag,” he replied. “I’ve been hearing your stomach rumbling for at least the past half-mile.”
It was true. The Orc was famished.
Having removed his armour, Other Gravewalker went on to undress right down to the skirt of his battle-tunic, keeping that on, as Ratbag could only suppose, for modesty’s sake. It seemed odd, given that he had already waded knee-deep into the turbid water, that Stranger had also retained his gauntlets and the pair of rivet-studded leather bracers that protected his forearms and his wrists.
The water level was low at this time of year and there was very little current; barely a ripple or an eddy in the ochre-coloured water to mark the direction of the flow. Ratbag could see Stranger taking care to feel for his footing as he made his way across, but the water reached no higher than his chest and at no time was he even close to being out of his depth. When he reached the other side he crouched down by the opposite bank, and set about feeling with his hands for something buried in the sediment.
Ratbag looked on, nervously. It seemed safe enough however, and emboldened by his companion’s successful crossing, Ratbag splashed across to join him.
“Stranger?” he called. “You needing Ratbag’s help?”
“Thank you, Ratbag. That’d be much appreciated,” Stranger said, turning to the Orc with a sweetly grateful smile. “Sometimes the big ones – the very large ones – will try and drag you under, so this sort of thing’s always best done with a partner, someone you can reply upon to spot for you.”
The thought of himself as a partner to Stranger, and being relied upon by Stranger, and perhaps also something to do with the way the Man had just been smiling at him – all of it sent a funny, soft sort of sensation curling through Ratbag’s chest and gut. He spoke up quickly, to distract himself from it. “We’re doing what now, Stranger?”
Stranger explained to Ratbag with half his attention fixed on what he was already doing. “We’re ginniling - for Slate-heads. When the water’s low like this in summer they like to lie up in – holes, in the riverbank. They can barely see but they hunt by touch and when they sense you with their feelers, they –“
Without warning Other Gravewalker lurched forwards, raising a sudden bow-wave in the water that soaked him; river water that as Ratbag could now see was churning and roiling as if it was being heated in a cauldron, being splashed up into a foam of muddy bubbles by the thrashing sides and tailfin of a gigantic, slimy fish.
“Argh!” Stranger cried. “They latch on!”
He was doing his best to wrestle with it. They splashed back and forward, in and out of the water. Of the fish itself Ratbag could catch only occasional glimpses. He saw that it had sightless eyes, like dots. An enormously wide, blunt head – and an equally broad, lipless mouth with two pairs of narrow feelers writhing out on either side. The skin was scale-free, of a blue-grey hue but with a pale belly, white as a drowned corpse; the pallid undersides only intermittently visible as the fish rolled and writhed. And the giant, bloated body of the thing – not even counting the tailfin - was easily as long as Stranger’s arm – or rather, the arm that the Slate-head hadn’t already swallowed up to the elbow in its ghastly, gaping maw.
Ratbag saw red. Part of it was the desperate, panicking movements of the fish. In its death-throes it had marked itself indelibly as prey, in a way that triggered all of Ratbag’s most primal, predatory senses, instincts that would have taken him no small effort of will to ignore. Mixed in with that was a mad impulse that also overtook him to defend Stranger, at any cost.
Other Gravewalker now had his fingers hooked through the fish’s gill covers and despite the continued wild thrashing of its tail, was managing to hold it steady by its head, more or less: his other hand however was still lodged some way down the Slate-head’s throat. Ratbag took his chance then and launched himself at the animal, belly-flopping into the water as he wrapped his arms and legs right round the slippery beast. He held his breath and plunged his face under, aiming directly for the nerve-center where its brain and spinal cord were joined. A severing of the two in that place, as the Orc well knew, would serve to rapidly dispatch almost any living thing. Cold blood welled into Ratbag’s mouth and stained the water red all around him as he found the spot and bit down, hard, on it. There turned out to be very little bone in the fish’s skeleton: the Slate-head’s skull, such as it was, seemed to be comprised mainly of toughened cartilage and biting through the back of its braincase was no effort for Ratbag at all.
Spasmodic muscle contractions kept the fish heaving and thrashing long after its life had gone, but to be sure, Ratbag kept his grip on it until almost all movement had ceased. At last he got to his feet, wheezing and panting, to find that in the meantime, Stranger had hauled all three of them, himself, the Orc and dead fish, back across the river to the shallows on their starting side.
All that there was left to show of their desperate struggle was a broad slick of blood on the other side of the river, in the slow current only now beginning to seep its way downstream.
Ratbag stood, thanking his lucky stars – such as they were – for a moment, for the fact of that recent interlude not having had much more of an unhappy outcome.
The Tark however – that crazy Tark! Stranger was actually laughing.
“I had that,” he told Ratbag. “Didn’t you see? I’d just managed to get a proper hold.”
“Is it dead?” Ratbag demanded. His nerves were still jangling following their recent ordeal. He was still panicked.
They both turned to survey at the corpse of the Slate-head. It was floating nearby in its own spreading patch of blood, floating sad and belly-up.
“I hope it is after all of that, Ratbag. I hope so.”
The Orc regarded Stranger with a long look, deeply unimpressed. “Now what was the plan again after they latch on, Stranger?”
“That was the plan.” Stranger sat down heavily in the water. “After they latch on they bite down - hard! And then, as you’ve seen, they don’t tend to let go.”
“That’s why you left your gloves and guards on, is’nit?”
“It is.” With a rueful air he showed Ratbag his right-hand gauntlet. The metal plate across the knuckles was marked with a line of bright, fresh dimples – bitemarks left by the Slate-head’s flat, crushing teeth.
Ratbag sat down beside him. His heart was still pounding. He didn’t know if he felt angry or anxious or relieved. “Stranger,” he demanded. “You done much of this before then, have you?”
Stranger seemed to want to evade the question. “Well. You know how it is,” he said. “Not personally. But Talion has. Your friend has wide-ranging interests. I know he rarely had the time, but he always enjoyed a spot of sport fishing.”
“’Sport fishing’ you call it?” Ratbag repeated, incredulous. “But that was a shrakin’ Caragor’s breakfast of a capture! It was a total mess.”
Stranger was still laughing. “I thought it went quite well for a first attempt, all things considered.”
They divided the Slate-head into three portions: one each for Man, Orc and Caragor. Snowflake, with a furtive air, padded off carrying his portion and crouched down to eat it a short distance away. They could hear him crunching his way down the fish’s backbone, huffing away to himself with satisfaction all the while. Stranger cooked the remainder over an open fire. The fillets of the Slate-head’s firm white flesh were delicately flavoured and running with rich, savoury-tasting fat. Stranger ate his fill but Ratbag gorged himself, and then went on to have room for more.
He lay on his side, sated, afterwards, as they idled on a patch of gravel and shingle beach. A chattering, twittering, flock of Soot-swifts wheeled and circled, chasing insects, high above their heads. They were strange, dark-coloured little birds, barely bigger than Morgul flies. From time to time a handful of them would peel away from the main flock to go flitting in and out of their nesting tunnels burrowed into the far side of the loop’s sharp-cut sandy cliff.
Stranger and Ratbag sat together, watching Snowflake paddling through the shallows. Now and again he lowered his head and lapped up a tongueful or two to drink. Then, heaving out a great, groaning sigh he collapsed onto one side, just as he’d done when the Other Gravewalker had been fussing over him earlier. He lay where he was, cooling himself in the slow current.
Once again, this ran contrary to everything Ratbag thought he knew about the everyday habits of this type of creature. “Ratbag always thought those things hated the water.”
“Hm’,” Stranger replied. “Snowflake doesn’t seem to be quite aware of that yet.”
On a sudden impulse the Orc turned towards him.
“For once it’s just the two of us,” Ratbag said. “We’ve got your Caragor and there’s nothing stopping us.” Galvanized into action, he leapt to his feet. “We should go now – you and me. We should leave. Right this minute.”
Stranger, still sitting in the sand, squinted up at him. His expression was nakedly hopeful and yet at the same time cautious, as if he was fully expecting to be the punchline to a not particularly well-intentioned joke. “You want to run away,” he said slowly, “with me?”
“Yes, Stranger. We’re partners, like you said, aren’t we?” he nodded his head in vigorous emphasis of what he was saying. “That mean that Ratbag looks out for you, and you look out for me.”
“Partners,” the Other Gravewalker repeated. His mouth twisted into a small smile.
“We could go far, and fast.” Ratbag told him. “They’d never catch us.”
“Perhaps it could work. We could do it, couldn’t we?” Just for a moment hope for the future, and happiness, were shining out of his face. In the next moment, however, it was all extinguished. “Gurza’s trackers,” he said. “They’re relentless. It doesn’t matter how far, or fast we went. They’ll never give up. They’d never let us go.”
“S’gotta be worth a try though, Stranger, doesn’t it?”
“Not today, Ratbag.” Other Gravewalker said, with a sad shake of his head. “They’ve come after us already. Look.”
On their way towards them was a small contingent of Orcish foot-soldiers accompanied by a pair of Caragor-riding troops. Spurring his mount to a gallop, the Uruk Ashok urged his Caragor ahead of the rest of the group. Wheeling it in a wide loop round Stranger and Ratbag, he galloped it up the riverbank behind them, effectively cutting off their most likely possible exit route. He slowed his Caragor to a trot as he drew nearer.
“What’s all this then, Globs?” he demanded, leaping down beside them. “Bunking off, are you, Big Glob? Started shirking your duties - skiving now, is it?”
For an instant Ratbag would have sworn that he could see Stranger thinking about it, as the Man directed a swift, measuring look towards his sword-belt and his crossbow and his quiver. The items were where he’d left them, with his armour, a short distance off along the beach. Stranger’s gaze shifted from his weapons and back to Ratbag. Then he demurred to Ashok in his usual, understated manner. “I had leave for it, from Gurza,” he said, simply.
“’Course you did,” Ashok scoffed, “I knew that. Big day for you coming up soon, innit?” The Uruk stood, running a critical eye over their bivouac. “So what c’her doing? Been having a lovely picnic?”
The rest of Ashok’s party approached. “Seen the smoke from yer fire,” the nearest foot-soldier called out. “Seen it from miles off. Come to check it out, didn’t we?”
“That we did,” Ashok nodded. “Thought we’d better make sure you didn’t get too carried away having a wonderful time. Had to come and check you weren’t going to go and do something stupid, and forget what Gurza said.” As he spoke he was watching Stranger’s reactions closely. “He told me to be sure and tell you to remember to come back.”
“There was no need.” Stranger’s eyes were downcast, and his tone resigned. “I hadn’t forgotten.”
They were now completely surrounded by Ashok’s troops. They looked on in silence as Stranger scattered the ashes of the fire then fitted his various pieces of weapons and armour back into place. He called to his Caragor. Snowflake, nervous of the other animals slunk towards him, and kept close to Stranger’s side.
“Ratbag?” he said, patting the animal’s back and inviting Ratbag to climb up on him.
Ashok snagged Ratbag by the collar before he had a chance to take so much as a step in Stranger’s direction. “No you don’t,” Ashok told Stranger flatly. “Little Glob rides with me.”
With gratitude and many thanks as ever to Sinick, for very helpful plot-hole plugging and comments on an earlier version. :)