"Oh, Gods, what is happening?!"
"I - I do not know!"
"It is the end of the world!"
The three girls screamed in horror as they were shaken and jostled by the shuddering, groaning earth beneath them. Forgetting that she was chained to the twins, Tove scrambled to her feet and tried to run, but when she hit the end of the chain, her feet were dragged from under her. She fell painfully to the shaking ground, her teeth cutting her lower lip.
Reason was swept aside by raw fear, and pandemonium reigned over the camp as women screamed and children wailed, their desperate cries drowned out by the roar of the earth. Their hands covering their heads, many of the women lay cowering on the ground, while others, overcome by blind panic, tried to flee. There was little cooperation among the terrified prisoners, and confusion ran riot as each fought to save herself. Children were trampled under feet, and vicious fights broke out as desperate captives collided with each other, trying to escape from an enemy they could not see. Only the whips and clubs of the guards restored some semblance of order.
As the earth moved beneath their feet, the fretful horses had only one instinct - to escape the terrible, unknown thing which their senses told them was danger. Frantic, they bucked and plunged, tearing loose from the line and galloping off into the night amid the frantic cries of their grooms.
When the first tremors rocked the land, the villagers of Stazmûlkrak dived under tables or beds, or braced themselves against the sturdy door frames of their homes. Living so close to the volcano for so many years, the townspeople had learned ways to survive Orodruin's volatile nature. The drunks, however, lay peacefully on the floors of the taverns or sprawled in the alleys and streets, too insensible even to know that the ground spasmed and twisted beneath their bodies.
In the orc camp, the fires rose higher, the flames licking hungrily around the stacked wood. The brutes did not seem the least bit bothered by the tremors; in fact, it seemed to bring out their bestial nature even more. Their bodies stripped naked and adorned with battle paint, the uruks danced wildly around the fires, singing and chanting dreadful paeans to war and violence. As a crowd of uruks congregated about the fire circle, they cheered lustily and beat their beefy fists against their left shoulders.
Another tremor, not so intense as the first, rocked the land, and the orcs let out a blood-curdling yell and prostrated themselves upon the ground, their gleaming eyes rolling back in their heads. When the earth stopped shaking, an immense uruk priest named Drâgh leapt to his feet with a roar. He was a tall, broad-chested brute, with thick arms bulging with powerful muscles and a neck as wide as that of a bull. His body glistened with paint, and arcane symbols adorned his chest and arms. Screaming "Matum!" – which means "death" in the language of Mordor – he thrust up a gristly skull, the totem of his clan. The man to whom the skull had once belonged had been one of the Rohirrim, and the long, fair hair still hung from the shriveled scalp. With a mighty shout, the other uruks jumped up and danced around him, chanting "Broshan, Drâgh!" over and over until they had worked themselves into a frenzy. Then they moved away from the campfire, silent and subtle as shadow walkers.
Far across the plain, deep within the belly of Orodruin, a pale blue light glowed balefully. Hissing like untold serpents, gas and steam began to escape from a vent on the northern side. Surging upward and absorbing the blue flame, a muted red glow flickered around the Mountain's crest. The rumbling of the earth's furnaces became a roar. Then suddenly the mountaintop burst into flame as molten rocks were flung like missiles which rained down upon the mountainside and surrounding area. Smoke billowed up from the crest, rising into the night sky.
Fifteen miles away at the village of Stazmûlkrak, men and women rushed out of their hovels and stared at the Mountain. Even though one particularly dilapidated building had collapsed, and the foundations of several others had cracked during the tremors, the residents were not overly alarmed. Most were relieved that the damage had not been worse. The villagers had seen many eruptions in the past, and this one was not particularly violent. Some of the more cautious, though, feared that this one was leading up to a series of eruptions that would be every bit as violent as the ones in the spring, and prayed to the God of Flame that such misery would not be visited upon them again.
The Southrons and the Khandians in the slaver's camp to the south were not so confident, for they had never seen active volcanoes in their own lands. Superstitious, many fell on their faces, begging the God of the Mountain not to harm them. Still shaken from the earthquake, the Rohirric captives' fear was fueled even more by the fire which shot from Orodruin's peak. Once again they tried to bolt, but were quickly beaten into submission by the guards.
Although they were hard-pressed, Böri and the guard on duty with him had managed to keep the captives around them in order while chaos ruled in the camp. When the band of uruks approached them out of the ebony black night, the two men were not expecting to see them. Still, they recognized them as friends, and were caught by surprise as the uruks rushed them, screaming unholy cries of rage. Böri could only gasp out his dismay as a battle hammer felled him with a fatal blow to the head. His throat torn open by a savage gash to the neck, the other guard gurgled out his life's blood as he plunged to the ground.
In the mass panic, women screamed in terror and tried to flee, but the uruks managed to corral one troop before the women could stampede away. Raising their fists in the air and crying, "Matum! Matum!" the uruks seized the frightened slaves and dragged them away to Drâgh, where they threw the women to the ground before him. His mind inflamed with draught and holy mushrooms, the uruk priest closed his eyes in ecstasy as he held the sacred skull high up in the air.
"The God of Fire has given me a vision," Drâgh's deep voice droned solemnly, green orbs wide and staring, saliva oozing from the corners of his mouth. "In this vision, I saw two kings, one with pale hair and one without a crown. They rode over a battlefield which stretched for miles and miles. Everywhere were the bodies of dead uruks, the whole army, slaughtered by the two wicked kings! Our people have failed the God of Fire, and now we are being punished!"
Transfixed by his words, the uruks shrieked and moaned in lamentation, tearing at their hair and ripping it out in clumps. Falling to their knees, they groveled upon the earth and beat their heads against the ground. Some took the slave whips at their belts and flailed themselves over their naked backs, drawing bloody streaks of gore. Others drew their daggers and slashed across their arms and chests, their minds so numbed by drugs and draught that they felt little pain.
"Silence!" Drâgh bellowed, raising his hand. Save for a few sniveling sobs of repentance, the uruks fell quiet, enthralled by their charismatic leader. "Only blood sacrifice will appease His wrath! Let the blood of these women flow over the altar!" His eyes gleaming with maniacal revelation, the uruk pointed to a large, flat boulder. "Lay the first offering there!"
"Which has He chosen? Which has He chosen?" the uruks chanted in a frenzy. "Show us the Fire God's chosen!"
"That one!" Drâgh pointed to a cringing maiden who lay flattened to the ground. "Throw her to the altar!"
A frenzy of madness upon them, the mob surged forward. The screaming girl was tossed upon the shoulders of her tormentors, and they paraded her around the fire circle. The flames cast their writhing shadows into elongated monoliths, dark and menacing. Flinging her down on the black slab of stone, they held her fast. Other uruks began beating the butts of their spears on the ground, pounding out a dirge of death. The captives screamed in horror at the gruesome ritual unfolding before them. Cradling his dagger across his outstretched palms, Drâgh kissed the blade, dedicating the weapon to the God of Flame. Then raising the dagger skyward, he brought it down, driving the blade into the girl's chest. The uruk plunged his hand into her torn chest cavity and wrenched the still beating heart from her body. With an exultant shriek of "MATUM!" he tossed the bloody organ to the crowd. The other uruks roared in murderous jubilation and began dancing wildly, raising their arms in the air and clamoring for more blood.
On the other side of the camp, Esarhaddon's feast had been ruined by the earthquake and subsequent eruption. Their faces tense and drawn, he and his chief officers sat cross-legged around his low table and debated the wisdom of evacuating the caravan that night. The men heard a stir at the closed tent flaps, and a few moments later they were interrupted by an anxious Carnation, who ushered a shaken guard into the chamber.
"My lord, the orcs have mutinied and overpowered the guards!" the frightened man gasped out breathlessly, his face ashen. "They have taken a number of slave women, and I fear they will kill them all!"
A murmur of alarm rose from among the men. Mutinies like this had been known to happen, but it was always deeply disturbing when such incidents occurred.
"Damn the bastards!" Esarhaddon growled as his hand clenched around his wine goblet. "When did this happen?"
"Just a short while ago, my lord," the man replied, trying to keep his voice steady. Being the bearer of bad news was always a risky proposition when dealing with men of power.
"Then, by the Gods, we must do something about it!"
The chief slaver turned to his officers and his eyes fell on Ubri. Ordinarily his chief lieutenant would be sent to captain such a rescue, but Ubri had committed far too many blunders as of late. This was not like him, for he had always been a reliable man, and the Shakh had grown to depend upon him. Something had happened to Ubri's mind in the Morgul Vale, rendering him incapable of making sound judgments. His rashness at Cirith Ungol had jeopardized them all, and since then, Ubri had seemed morose and distant. There was no way the slaver could entrust a mission as serious as this to his fellow Southron, but he could not pass the responsibility to one lower in rank. Groaning inwardly, Esarhaddon realized he would have to lead the party himself.
"Let your mind be at ease, my lord," Ubri spoke up soothingly. "These uruks have no heart for a real battle! Soon I will have this rebellion subdued!"
"I am sure you will, Lieutenant," Esarhaddon told him, "but first I want to take a few men with me and see for myself what is happening. All the reports I have received have stated that the guards are having difficulty enough in keeping the slaves from bolting, and now with this eruption of the Fiery Mountain, the whole camp is in turmoil. You will stay here and organize a sufficient force to deal with the uruks. Who knows what other mischief the rebels might be considering?" The slaver's face was grim.
"I hardly think your presence is required, my lord," Ubri returned sourly. "Let me send a few scouts--"
"No, Ubri. My mind is decided," Esarhaddon stated firmly. "Besides, I want a little adventure."
"My lord," Tushratta lay his hand upon the slaver's shoulder, "I strongly advise against your going. It has been only four days since your leg was wounded at Cirith Ungol, and..."
"My leg is fine, Physician," Esarhaddon told him as he rose to his feet and motioned for two of his slaves to bring him his mail shirt and scimitar.
"Then I insist that I go with you--"
"You will do nothing of the kind! Someone has to stay here and keep order in the camp." Esarhaddon stood and waited for the slaves to assist him in removing his richly embroidered caftan and putting on a plain tunic and padded vest. "You and Aziru will be busy enough tending the injured."
"Tushratta is right, my lord. You should not endanger your health when we can handle this matter," Ubri protested, determined to dissuade his master.
"That matter has already been settled," Esarhaddon replied as a slave slid his mail shirt over his clothing. Another slave handed him a conical helm, and after the Shakh had placed it on his head, the servant wound a turban around the base of the helmet.
"I think this is a mistake," Ubri grumbled, tapping his fingers on the table.
"Lieutenant, after you have rounded up all the men that you can find, you will converge on the orc camp." Esarhaddon gave the man a piercing look which brooked no argument. "Khaldun, Inbir and I will scout on ahead. We will teach those bastards a lesson!"
"My lord, too much danger for you--" Ubri started to say but the chief slaver was already striding through the tent opening, Khaldun and Inbir at his heels.
With the uneasy messenger leading the way, Esarhaddon and his small party left the pavilion and headed towards the orc encampment. The men decided against taking torches, for the light would alert the uruks, and stealth was of prime concern. There would be no problem in finding the camp, for the din was unmistakable, and the light of the bonfires could be seen from far away. The orcs, who had never become assimilated with men, preferred to camp away from the caravan, and had been allowed to choose a spot near the base of a low, rocky hillock. Dark rock jutted from the slope, exposed by the slow, gradual erosion of the ages.
Carefully making their way over the uneven plain, Esarhaddon and his men saw the outline of a rocky knoll ahead of them. The slaver motioned for his party to follow the messenger, who knew the lay of the land well. Esarhaddon groaned to himself as he followed behind the guide, for his injured leg had begun to feel as though a horse were kicking it. As the men climbed the steep slope, they were careful not to dislodge the scree which lay heaped against its side, for any noise would alert the uruks. Once reaching the crest, they crawled to the edge, where they had a view of the orcs and their captives. All of the men had heard of the uruks' savagery, but the scene below took them aback. Even the half-breeds, whom their betters had thought were partly "civilized," had shed the shallow veneer and reverted to their ancient primeval nature. Anyone who looked upon them would surely doubt the orcs' claim of having far distant elvish ancestry.
Their glistening bodies orange in the firelight, the maddened uruks leaped and danced around the sacrificial stone as the drummers pounded out a savage rhythm. Drâgh had not yet chosen the next victim for the blood sacrifice, and as the women waited for his decision, the uruks forced them to their knees in homage to the Mountain and its Dark Lord. Almost hypnotized, the captives never turned their gaze from the huge, naked beast. Drâgh held aloft the gruesome skull talisman and stared unseeing towards Orodruin. The women set up a low dirge of mourning, trembling at the thought that they might be chosen as the next offering to appease the blood-thirst of the God of Flame.
"There are too many of them," Esarhaddon whispered, turning his head to the right. Ganbar lay by his side, peering over the edge of the cliff. "If we make any move, they will kill us all! I am going to send the messenger back to look for Ubri and the reinforcements." The scion of the House of Huzziya was never one to take unnecessary chances. Though the thought of dying a warrior's death and gaining an endless harem of fair maidens in the afterlife was appealing, he had concluded long ago that being a live coward with a stack of gold was far better than being a dead hero crowned with laurels. He signaled to the messenger, who silently moved back from the crest of the hill and melted into the darkness.
"That is undoubtedly true, Shakh, but surely we cannot just surrender the women to such a horrible fate!" His face pinched with worry, Ganbar nervously tugged his golden earring.
"We could always throw rocks," the Shakh replied dryly. "We might as well, you know. There is no way we can get those women out of there with odds against us of three to one."
"But, my lord, Aeffe is down there!" Inbir gripped the slaver's arm and pointed to the women below them. "We cannot let the bastards kill her!"
"Inbir, rashness will not save her," Esarhaddon replied as he stared down at the chanting throng, which was screaming for the next victim.
"My lord, I will go," Inbir grated out between tightly clenched teeth. He looked as though he would kill anyone who got in his way.
"Go, and I will have you whipped for insubordination!" His skin flushed dark with anger, Esarhaddon narrowed his eyes dangerously.
"Aeffe," Inbir whispered. His heart constricting in his chest, he watched in horror as the uruks lifted the girl to their shoulders. With a low growl, he rolled to his knees, but a hand on his arm restrained him.
"Do not be a fool!" Khaldun hissed.
"Take your hand off me, Khaldun!" Inbir spat out as he struggled to rise to his feet. "I might be a fool, but I am no damn coward!" Giving Khaldun's hand a vicious jerk, Inbir did not see Esarhaddon sign to Ganbar, and thus he was unprepared for what came next. Inbir finally wrenched his hand free and stood up, drawing his sword, but he went toppling to the ground when Ganbar grabbed him by the ankles. Before Inbir was quite sure what had happened, Ganbar had pinned him down on the ground and held his neck fast in the crook of his arm.
"Shhhh!" Ganbar hissed. "Be quiet now! I do not want to break your neck!" he told him as Inbir tried to use his thumbs to gouge at his eyes. "I do not want to do this!" Ganbar grunted as he increased the pressure on Inbir's neck, rendering the gasping man immobile.
"All right, you have persuaded me!" Inbir gasped, ceasing to fight.
"Shakh, perhaps we should do something now," Khaldun suggested, looking down at the uruk encampment.
"Khaldun, just kill the bastard!" Esarhaddon whispered as the uruk lifted up the sacrificial knife in dedication to Sauron.
"My lord," Khaldun nodded to the slaver. Rising gracefully to his feet, he slid his strung bow from his quiver. Quickly, silently, the black man from Far Harad nocked the arrow, drew the string back to his cheek, and unleashed the dart. With a soft twang, the arrow arced and plummeted down as though it were pulled by a lodestone. With a hideous scream, Drâgh clutched his chest, stared up at the cliff, and then fell sprawling atop the screaming Aeffe.
"Shakh, the uruks might get a little nasty now," Khaldun chuckled softly.
"They have been known to do that." Esarhaddon's hooded eyes were smiling as he nodded to Khaldun. "I guess we might as well charge before they have time to think about their bad tempers. Come on, men, let us teach those bastards a lesson!"
"I wondered how long we were going to have to wait," Ganbar grumbled.
Esarhaddon leaped to his feet, drawing his scimitar, and with Ganbar, Inbir and Khaldun behind him, he started down the rocky slope. Below them, the Southrons saw the sacrificial stone, Drâgh's body still slumped over Aeffe. Disorganized and confused by the death of their priest, many of the orcs milled around aimlessly. Others, however, wanted revenge.
Halfway down, the men were met by seven enraged uruks armed with battle axes and swords. Their new leader, a hideous monster, was covered from his face to his calves with blue paint highlighted with sacred signs to protect him from evil. Striped like a tiger with black horizontal lines across his face, he drew back his lips, barring his fangs at Esarhaddon. Then, screaming out the name of his fallen chief, he charged, swinging his sword. Esarhaddon ducked and jumped quickly to the side. The uruk whirled around to face him, bringing his sword up once again to slash at the slaver.
Esarhaddon parried the thrust with his scimitar, but his foot slipped on the loose talus, and he fell, dropping his weapon. The orc brought down his blade for the killing stroke, but the Southron rolled out of the way. From the corner of his eye, Esarhaddon saw that Ganbar had felled his opponent, but when his lieutenant tried to go to his aid, he was threatened by a uruk to the left. Khaldun and Inbir were both locked in mortal combat with two other uruks apiece, and so Esarhaddon could hope for no help from that quarter. Esarhaddon looked up into the uruk's blazing eyes, which caught the firelight and seemed to glow in the darkness. Grasping the hilt in both hands, the uruk lifted the blade high, and the slaver saw Death peering over his shoulder.
"Thy women are mine," Death told him, laughing. "Thou hast lost everything, including thy life!"
Scooping up a handful of loose gravel, Esarhaddon flung it in his adversary's face, temporarily blinding him. The slaver lunged forward, grabbing the uruk around the knees, and sank his teeth deep into the brute's calf as he pulled him down.
The uruk bellowed in rage as he fell to the ground, his sword flying through the air and landing some distance away. Drawing his dagger from his belt, Esarhaddon hurled himself upon the beast, but before the Southron could strike, the uruk had grabbed him around the middle, crushing his ribs in a death grip. The loose stones gave way under them, and the two rolled down the slope, fighting and pummeling each other until a large, jutting stone halted their downward descent.
Half dazed from a gash to his head, Esarhaddon felt the uruk wrench the dagger from his hand. His attacker looked down at him, his eyes burning with a maniacal fierceness. As the uruk brought the dagger down, Esarhaddon caught his wrist. Panting, the two struggled for the knife. The uruk was much stronger, and Esarhaddon saw the triumph burning in his yellow eyes. Drawing back his left hand, Esarhaddon struck the brute in the jaw, but it was like hitting solid iron, and the slave trader heard a bone in his finger crack. The blade moved inexorably towards Esarhaddon's throat. He was doomed.
The point of the blade had almost reached Esarhaddon's throat when the uruk screamed. Esarhaddon felt his enemy's body tense and then shudder as a blade erupted from his chest, grating against Esarhaddon's mail. The dead uruk was flung to the side, and Esarhaddon found himself looking up at Inbir.
"My lord, you are hurt!" Inbir exclaimed, gazing in horror at the blood that was streaming from Esarhaddon's forehead.
"No, Inbir... only a little blood from where I cracked my head on the rock. I probably have done more harm to my mouth, for I think I loosened some teeth when I bit into the bastard's thick hide." Esarhaddon laughed weakly. "It will take a lot of wine to wash away the foul taste from my mouth!"
"My lord, perhaps you should lie still and rest until your slaves arrive to help." Inbir pulled a handkerchief from his left sleeve and mopped the blood from Esarhaddon's brow.
"No, no, I am fine. Just get me to my feet. I do not want to miss this battle!"
"If my lord insists, but I do not think it is the wisest thing to do." The young Southron helped Esarhaddon to his feet, steadying him with an arm around his side. Together they looked down below them, where Ubri had finally arrived with the reinforcements. Behind them, they could hear Esarhaddon's servants shouting for their master.
"My lord, I know I should never say anything against my elders, but it seems Captain Ubri was a little slow," Inbir remarked quietly.
"More than a little slow," Esarhaddon growled. "He could have swived all my harlots in the time it took him to get here!" He smiled as a swing from Khaldun's scimitar lopped off a uruk's head. "He got here, though. That is all that matters."
Inbir's eyes followed Esarhaddon's. "Khaldun handles himself well indeed," he told him.
"And so do you," Esarhaddon replied, gripping Inbir's shoulder tighter. "After tonight, there will be some changes. I am making Ganbar my chief lieutenant, and you will be second. With the work he has done tonight, Khaldun will be third."
"My lord," Inbir sounded surprised, "you are relieving Ubri of his position?"
"Let us just say that I am pensioning him off with a sizable entitlement," Esarhaddon laughed weakly, then collapsed in Inbir's arms.
Lowering him to the ground, Inbir called for two of the slaves who had just come up the hill. He watched as Ubri's men slaughtered those uruks who were still foolish enough to fight. Then with a savage cry, the men raced after the fleeing uruks, slashing at the retreating backs with their swords. Inbir smiled. They had taught the devils a lesson.