Chapter 1_ Indecision
A Note from Helena Markos: Somehow, even when I write in someone else's universe, I end up writing a story about travel. This is a sort-of epilogue of Zoop's The Healer's Oath, which is written with her blessing and contained in the boundaries of her world. A meta exercise of fan fiction based on fan fiction.
I was a great fan of this pair, being a fan of the "snaga" orcs in general, and saw a real opportunity to delve more into the two of them as they make a way for themselves in the world. And it is great fun, writing in someone else's sandbox, taking their world and rules and their characters and putting your own awkward stamp on them, but I suppose any fan ficcer feels this way. I hope to do them justice, at any rate.
I highly suggest reading The Healer's Oath if you haven't, since Events in that story certainly play a part in this one, and there may be a hint or two to upcoming Zoop sequels. Just a bit ;P
A Note from the Zoop: I can't express enough how thrilled I am that characters of my own creation have inspired someone to fan fic them. :D It should come as no surprise that I'm also thrilled not to have to think up some exciting interim adventures for Gundshau and Nymhriel myself, as they await their eventual appearance in an upcoming sequel in the Misfire of Global Proportions 'verse. Consider Helena's wonderful efforts to be an official, sanctioned, licensed, approved, etc. continuation of The Healer's Oath. But make sure you take her advice and read the original first. She's not going to hold your hand, you know. ;)
A cold rain had started up in the late afternoon. It had been threatening for most of the day, and while the cloud cover eased traveling by daylight, the warmer temperature was already beginning to melt the light covering of snow on the ground into a mess of thick mud. Gundshau could smell the heavy scent before it began peppering down on the pair of them, and though he had kept his eyes sharp for some manner of shelter, he did not spot anything suitable until dusk. By then, he and Nymhriel were soaked down, caked to the knees in soppy, cold muck.
Now, Gundshau eyed his female companion quietly as they sat beneath a granite outcropping, situated on slightly higher ground so their bedrolls would remain dry. It was a good spot; the rocky ledge above formed a natural roof that kept the wind and rain off of them. Though lighting the fire had been tricky business, Nymhriel had the good sense to pack some igniting fluid with her when they fled. Gundshau stretched his chilled hands toward the flames, flexing his cold, stiff joints as Nymhriel pulled on a fresh pair of warm, wool knee socks, her wet boots and stockings laid out next to Gundshau's own boots as they dried beside the fire. It had been a week since they escaped the flames of her home, and Gundshau found that the sight of her long, pale legs was still just as arousing as when he first saw them, even if doubtful thoughts had begun to creep in during their travel.
He had put her in a bad spot, and wondered often if she now had her misgivings. She had promised to be his mate, but a promise made in the throes of passion might not have been a promise at all. What was it that old archer once told him? Ne'er trust a word outta a bint's mouth after ya fucked 'er proper. Those words came back to Gundshau often, especially when the weather turned from frigid to unseasonably warm. It seemed they had spent more time soaking than dry in recent days, and the dour expression on Nymhriel's delicate features twisted his gut like he had never known.
Perhaps he had been a fool to think that he was any more than a novel diversion for her. Well, they were in the shit of it now, and Gundshau found himself mentally scrambling, trying to decide what to do next. They had been wandering aimlessly east, the distant peaks of the White Mountains a blue blot to the north, and he had no idea where they would go from here. She had saved his life, twice if he counted his foolish attempt at suicide, and he could not even make her comfortable, let alone make her happy.
Gundshau was not even sure what made tark women happy in the first place. An orcess would be pleased with a strong arm and hunting prowess, an unselfish lover and a promise of loyalty, but somehow, Gundshau did not think that would be enough. Men and their womenfolk liked regular meals and warm hearths and soft beds. At the moment, that was not something he could give to Nymhriel, and though she had not complained about the poor weather or the long miles they had traveled, Gundshau could sense her unhappiness. She had barely touched him since they left her home. That alone spoke to her displeasure.
"We should reach Ethring soon, don't you think?" Nymhriel asked brightly.
Her voice broke Gundshau from his reverie, and he realized suddenly that his palms were overly hot. Pulling his hands to his chest, the orc eyed the woman sitting next to him with a confused expression as he rubbed his knuckles. "What that?"
"The city," she explained with a twinkling laugh, and a part of Gundshau was relieved to see her in such good spirits despite her damp, unwashed hair and the grime covering her skirts.
He was so caught up in the sight of her, her chestnut hair reflecting the warm firelight and her rosy cheeks against the paleness of the rest of her skin, it was a moment before he registered what she was saying. "What city?"
A vexed look that Gundshau knew well, from the time he spent healing in her cottage, passed over Nymhriel's features and he found himself cringing a little in the wake of her grey glare. "The city of Ethring," she said slowly. "It rests over the river a few days east of here. I have been there before for supplies that are rare to this region."
Gundshau snorted and swallowed uneasily, avoiding that unnerving glare as he looked out at the rain pattering in the pools of mud just outside. Already the light of day was dimming. He was quiet for a moment, annoyed that he had nearly led them straight into danger. "We go around, then," he said finally, meeting Nymhriel's eyes.
To his dismay, her whole face fell. "Around?" she said, a little distressed. "Whatever for? I have money with me, and we need supplies."
Gundshau gave her a dark look and gestured silently to himself.
"Oh," Nymhriel sounded a little put off. "Well, the fact that you're an orc should not be too much trouble," she said uncertainly. "A general edict went out over a year ago stating that any orc not causing mischief should be left in peace. The King himself ordered it. I am sure, besides a few odd looks, we should not be troubled too much."
He did not look convinced. "Gundshau," Nymhriel implored, "there were things that I did not think to pack that we may have need of. We were in such a hurry..." Her voice trailed off and Gundshau felt another twinge of guilt for the position he had put her in. She should not have to join in his solitude.
"We go to city," he conceded quietly, again avoiding her gaze.
"You will see," Nymhriel soothed, reaching out to squeeze his tense shoulder. "Not all Men are like Saervodh and the men that followed him. I am sure there will be someawkwardness, but it will not be as awful as you think."
"I stay outside city," Gundshau told her, a stern look on his face. "Stay hidden."
"I told you, that would be unnecessary–" Anything else Nymhriel thought to say to convince him died with the glower he fixed her with. How could she ask such a thing? The last time she had dragged him among Men they had both nearly been killed, never mind the cruel words thrown carelessly at him. If not for Gundshau's sharp instincts, they would have burned alive in her cottage. The King's law had applied to the people in her village as well, and it was not heeded there, though it had kept Gundshau safe as he healed.
Nymhriel wanted to believe that there would be more acceptance in a larger city, but there were no guarantees of that. "All right," Nymhriel agreed. "I promise I will only be a few hours."
Gundshau only grunted in response, folding his hands against his chin.
Reticence seemed a trait her orc companion was well versed in. Now that she had removed her hand from his shoulder, a movement that made him tense even more, Gundshau's attention was fixed solely on the flickering flames in front of him, his expression far away. Brooding, she realized. How often had she gazed upon Angwedhon's face as he brooded, especially as the clouds of war gathered on their doorstep? Nymhriel could not remember if he had even said a word the night before he left for battle. Perhaps he knew somehow, even then, that he would not return.
Gundshau was not leaving for battle, but Nymhriel imagined there was much on his mind as well. No doubt he had his worries for their future, and perhaps his regrets. She was afraid that he'd leave suddenly while she was occupied in the city. He had been so, utterly silent since they set off on their own. True, Nymhriel had to admit she had been just as silent. The weather had not been overly pleasant, and she had not been in an amorous mood lately, but there was more to it than that.
Once their night of passion was over and the immediate danger passed, the reality of what she had done set in. It was not so much that she had slept with Gundshau that troubled her, but the swiftness of that decision. There were motives much less noble than love involved, and a part of her felt horrible for that. Whatever dark attraction he held aside, Nymhriel really could not say that she knew him well. She trusted him, he had shown that he was more than trustworthy, especially where she was concerned, but she knew nothing of his life, of his likes or dislikes, of his own passions, and Nymhriel wanted to know those things. She had made a promise to remain with him. Whether or not she did so in any permanent manner, she owed him a chance, and she wanted to know him. It was entirely possible that, once he knew her better, he might retract his offer altogether.
"What is your favorite color?" she asked him suddenly. Even as the words left her mouth, they sounded vapid, but she had to begin somewhere.
The startled expression that came over Gundshau's face was almost comical. He eyed her up and down suspiciously. "My...what?"
A little pang of pity came over Nymhriel. Perhaps orcs did not have favorite colors. Perhaps they were not allowed such luxuries. "I was just wondering," Nymhriel said off handedly. "We know so little of one another, and I was just curious to know if you have a favorite color."
Frowning, Gundshau's heavy brows furrowed over his blood red eyes as he turned back towards the fire, an intense expression on his face. She did not think such a question required this kind of deep thought, and Nymhriel was about to tell him to never mind it when a soft look came over his face.
"Green," he said quietly, "soft green, almost grey, like color of your skirt."
Nymhriel found herself unconsciously looking at her skirts, even though she already knew they were a faded sage. It was an oddly specific and surprising answer. She had honestly expected him to say black or red, the colors of the Mordor banner, or blood, or darkness. Certainly, she had not expected green. Weren't orcs supposed to hate growing things? She immediately felt awful for thinking such a thought. Of course he could like the color green. Being an orc should not mean that he only preferred certain colors.
"Why green?" she asked, curious about the soft expression on his face.
"When I was small," he started, "live in open plain. Grass forever until it reach the sky," Gundshau raised his arms in front of him, moving them from side to side like swishing rushes. "Grass very tall, taller than me, sound like whispers, shhh, shhh, hide footsteps." A wry grin lit his face. "I crouch in grass, jump out and scare sisters." A quiet chuckle shook his shoulders.
Nymhriel chuckled with him. His sisters must have hated him for pulling such pranks, but she had done similar mischief on her older brother when she was young. "Did you have many sisters?"
Snorting, Gundshau fixed her with a dour stare. "Too many sisters," he said. "Older, younger, always braiding hair like I am another sister. Too many sisters, not enough brothers. I am only son. Outnumbered always." Despite his grousing, there was a real fondness in his voice. Nymhriel did not think he minded being outnumbered.
Out of politeness, she hid her smile behind her hand. Nymhriel could empathize with his sisters. As a young child, she had once painted her brother's face with their mother's rouge when he was sleeping. How angry Húron was with her when he discovered what she had done! Of course that had not been for several hours after his waking, when one of the other village youths pointed out his "whore face." He had not lived that down among the other boys until he went off to train for the Gondor army at the tender age of fifteen. That had been how she met Angwedhon, who had followed her brother home after their years of training and stayed with their family while waiting for assignment. He had no home of his own to go to, her Angwedhon, orphaned at a young age. She had pitied him before he swept her off her feet.
She had been sixteen then, and there was nothing more dashing than watching Angwedhon and Húron spar, their bright swords flashing in the dappled light of the late May sun streaming through the budding Birch trees. Three years later, she and Angwedhon were married and she was apprenticing to the village wise woman, four years after that, her husband was dead along with her brother, two more tallies in the death count of Pelennor Field.
"You are far away," Gundshau said quietly, a gentle look on his face.
With a breathy laugh, Nymhriel shook her head, chasing off old ghosts. "I am sorry," she apologized. "I was just thinking of the pranks I played on my older brother."
"You have brother?" Gundshau asked with a thoughtful look.
"No," she told him quietly. "I buried him along with my husband, but he was a good brother while I had him."
"Never had chance to bury sisters." Gundshau stared balefully at his hands as he wrung them in his lap. "Running, running and then join up with others going to Mordor. In a unit before I know what happened."
"How old were you?" Nymhriel asked. There were some things that he showed ignorance in; some basic things that he had never been taught. Like how babies were born. He must have been old enough when he lost his family to survive on his own, but young enough to forget whatever he might have learned in a gentler setting.
"Eight," the orc replied with a shrug, "nine, maybe. Hard to say. Hard to remember." Gundshau tapped at his temple with a miserable frown, as if he wished to free those forgotten memories.
She had no words. Eight? Nine? He had been just a child! How could they send a boy so young into the army? What was the orc army like, that he had no concept of babies, of decent treatment? When she had first met him, even as she healed him, she had been curt, almost to the point of cruelty, she had bound him and taken liberties she never should have, and he had called her kind! No amount of curiosity could bring Nymhriel to ask him about his service to the Dark Lord. There were some things better left unknown.
Nymhriel scooted so she was next to him and wrapped her arm around his broad shoulders, resting her cheek on the soft, black hair of his head. He stiffened at first, unsure, and awkwardly returned the embrace. Hunger was gnawing at her, but Nymhriel felt more compelled to comfort Gundshau now then to ask him about supper.
"I am sorry about your sisters," she said quietly, hoping that he understood that she was sorry for much more than that, but could not put it all into words.
"Sorry for your brother," Gundshau told her.
They stared out into the blackness, the firelight catching flecks of rain as it peppered down, like twinkling stars against the pit of night. It was unseasonably warm for winter, and Nymhriel was silently thankful. She had no idea what they would do when the snows came down heavily. They would have to find decent shelter by then.
Shifting anxiously, Gundshau heaved a long sigh and Nymhriel released him. She supposed their quiet moment was over. He cast an apologetic look at her. "Need to piss," he said unceremoniously. He patted her knee before rising to his feet and strolling, barefoot, into the rain, his figure swallowed by the darkness.
Blinking a little at his candor, Nymhriel smiled and shook her head. Perhaps, once they had gotten to know each other better, she might discuss with him proper etiquette regarding such things.
Nymhriel rifled through her bag, producing the hard bread she had packed hastily. The bread was most likely more than stale by now, but Gundshau had no luck in hunting today. They needed to keep their strength up until they reached the city, then Nymhriel could purchase proper traveling food, dry meat and tack and nuts and grain. That would sustain them for a while, at least.
As she carefully repacked her pack, Nymhriel tested the weight of the Lady's Mantle seeds she had brought with her. She would need to get more of these as well. Gundshau had only asked her about them once. "They are for a woman's concerns," she had told him tartly, and he had not pressed the matter. Though they had not engaged in intimacy since the night in her cottage, she had taken them religiously as they traveled. Lady's Mantle worked best with consistency, and Nymhriel was not sure she wanted to take any chances. They were in no position to start a family, and Nymhriel was not sure she was ready for that level of commitment. Not yet.
"Pssst," Gundshau's rough tenor hissed from behind her, and Nymhriel nearly screamed when she turned to find his face hovering in the darkness, his countenance illuminated while his body remained shadowed. It was a trick of the eye, but one that sent her hand to her throat. The harsh light hit every line and bestial feature in his face. For the briefest moment, he seemed a complete stranger.
He did not notice her sudden fright. "Pass knife," he whispered urgently as he pointed to his jagged hunting knife laying, sheathed, near her feet.
Now, Nymhriel feared for a whole, new reason. "Is there danger?" she asked anxiously.
Wrinkling his nose, Gundshau pressed his long, clawed finger to his lips before pointing, again, to the knife at her feet and Nymhriel complied, quickly passing him the short, broad weapon. He shifted into the night like a shadow.
Long, tense minutes passed as Nymhriel stared into the darkness, gnawing at her ragged thumbnail, straining her ears against the pattering rain just outside. Then, there was a horrible screaming screech followed by silence so utter, she worried she might chew her nail clear off. Gundshau appeared a moment later with a large bundle of fur and blood slung over his shoulder, a triumphant look in his face.
"No hard bread tonight," he said cheerily as he dropped the groundhog just outside of their shelter. "Rain drives rodent out of hole. Good meal."
Nymhriel shook her head, annoyed, as he dressed the groundhog, even though her stomach rumbled in anticipation. "I though that we were in danger."
"Didn't want scare off dinner," Gundshau replied with a careless shrug as he freed the flesh from the skin and sliced the beast in twain. Nymhriel stripped two long branches that had yet to become firewood as he did this, and in short order they had the groundhog spitted. Soon, they were sitting on their haunches, both staring as the meat charred.
Gundshau did not let their supper cook for more than five minutes before fishing it off the flames and handing her half. The meat was rawer than she was used to, but no harm should come from eating a kill so fresh, and Nymhriel dug into her portion with a ravenous vigor that nearly matched her companion's.
After supper was cleaned up and they had washed as well as they were able with their limited supplies, they bedded down for the night. Nymhriel had shared a bed with Gundshau for the past week, but always she was too road weary to approach him. To his credit, he had not pushed any advances on her, content to lay by her side. She felt grimy, and she was sure she reeked, but Nymhriel wanted his warmth tonight, even if the chill in the air was not sufficient to warrant it.
Turning, Nymhriel brought her head to rest against his chest, listening to the strong, slow thud of his heart. Gundshau shifted a little, and she felt his hot breath against her temple as he brought his arm up so her head was half pillowed on it. With quiet amusement, she realized his feet barely reached her mid calf. "I am sorry if I smell awful," she apologized, knowing his nose was far more sensitive than hers. His odor was not so bad. He had stripped his bloody shirt, and the soft musk of his skin was a comfort.
"Smell fine," he assured her, weariness in his voice. They had traveled a good distance today. Between sloshing in the mud and carrying her pack, Nymhriel was feeling the start of soreness in her legs and shoulders, and she imagined he felt the same. He carried a greater weight than her, with his weapons adding to the bulk.
Gundshau rolled to face her, and as his mouth traced over her body, Nymhriel decided to let her self conscious thoughts slide away. This was not a hard task as he went about pleasing her, and soon she was lost in the feel of his hands on her body, his tongue setting fire to her.
Nymhriel embraced her orc lover, and decided to let fate take them where it may.