Darian's family stood like a pack of crows in the Hall of the King.

Simeon drew himself up to his full height, and approached the towering dais through the forrest of black columns. He presented himself with a deep bow of obeisance, and waited to be acknowledged. The Uruk's scroll burned in his hand.

"The Knight Simeon, formerly of Lord Captain Darian's command, of Orthanc," announced the new steward, in his much diminished role. "You may present my guard with your scroll."

Simeon swallowed. It seemed he was to kneel as the King perused the letter.

"Stand, Knight," Elessar said, his voice rich and humble at once. "You've told my steward that this is a message, for me, from the half-Orc who attacked Orthanc?"

"That's so, my King. He brought me with him, after his escape, and held me for two days afterwards. No-rather, sire-I stayed with him during the blizzard, and then left freely."

It was no less than the truth, but Simeon cringed to say it. Much better to be captured, coerced, and escaped. He wondered if any Man had lived who might name him traitor.

"I am told, also, that this matter-of which I was not notified-" Elessar glanced at the family, "concerned a young woman, and an infant... of mixed parentage."

"That is true, sire."

"Tell me how it came to pass."

"We were fighting a pack of Orcs who'd been raiding, and had annihilated Lord Beregemond's command. Lord Darian-and others-had the idea to-to seek the females that the Orcs had been travelling with."

"Travelling? On raids?"

"No, sire. In escape."

The King's eyes were hard. He remained silent for a moment, then said, "Continue."

Simeon's mouth was dry. Why had he been comfortable with that operation before? Why did it take his King's gaze to shame him?

Had extermination of nuisance Orcs not been the command?

"My King, the young woman presented herself as we closed on the females. She was... known to the Captain."

"Known," Elessar repeated. "Tell it all, and quickly."

"He named her for a thief he'd encountered on patrol in Osgiliath. She had the baby-the Orcling-with her. The late Captain ordered her capture, and decided then and there to abandon the search for the females. The young woman-called Tara-was held for several days on his command. The Captain was cruel to her. Abominably cruel."

A hiss came from the crows, and Simeon licked his lips.

"Tell me about this explosion, which killed so many of my soldiers during the Uruk's attack on Orthanc."

"It was a sudden ball of fire, and a sound of thunder, and all the rubble from the floor rained down around us. Those soldiers who were engulfed... if anything of them remained, it was burned black, and some... seemed to have been... It was as if the ball of fire had teeth, and bit at them."

The King frowned in displeasure. Behind his eyes were memories... and fears. He turned now to the scroll, unfurling it quickly, to seek some hint of who the Uruk's master must be.

To the King of Men:

Since the end of the War, you have set your sword against the Orcs. Your soldiers don't raid in revenge. They come in hordes with Elves to exterminate us. They hunt our mates, and our young, and chop them into pieces. My own woman-a woman of Gondor-was cut up by your Captain's knife, and my daughter was swung by her ankles at a stone wall. Both survive, but only through their courage, and our victory.

So I ask: Why should the sky lighten for you, and be dark for the Power, when the world stays the same, no matter which of you claims the throne?

We will not die because you dream of a world without Orc-kind. The world must be big enough for both. You've won a great War, and you want your territory. We've survived a great War, and we mean to survive still, so we must have our territory.

Men have no liking for the cold. So I will take the ancient lands of Angmar, and the Ettenmoors, east and over to the Grey Mountains, and all above it in the name of Orcs who wish to live free from the bother of Men.

Men should keep to their side of the Mountains, and Orcs to theirs, and then we will have no problem. Your Men at Orthanc earned what they got, for abusing my family. We've plenty more of that, for any Man who tries to do the same again to us.

Let's call it fair between us, so that we might both survive.

The words of Ushatar Azathorn, Free Uruk-hai Captain of the North.

Aragorn scowled at the document, then at Simeon. "These words are indeed his, and his alone?"

"Yes, sire. He dictated the letter to me without hesitation, or input from any other."

"And what manner of beast is this-" Aragorn broke off, reluctant to utter a name of Black Speech in his hall. He longed for Gandalf's council. but the great Wizard was in the wilds. "This Uruk. What did you perceive of his character?"

"Determined," Simeon said immediatly. "The Lord Captain doubted that any would come to rescue the woman, and I admit that I, as well, doubted such a thing. But she was quite certain from the start, and come he did, with only two companions: one like himself, and an Orc of the Misty Mountains, who was a great terror who killed many men with no weapon save fangs and claws. This one, however, did not remain with the Uruks. He spoke of... a loss, and a need for vengeance. I assumed, from the conversation, that his mate was the one... One whose body was violated in death. His departure caused sorrow to the Uruk Captain."

"Sorrow," Aragorn repeated. He sighed heavily, stroking his short beard as he took in all he'd been told. "What of this woman, who killed Captain Darian? What is her character, that she would choose such a life with Uruk-hai and Orcs?"

Simeon paused a moment, before speaking. He glanced at the crows, making demonstrations of grief and outrage. "She... is quiet. Thoughtful. I could not call her elegant, but she has the makings of grace."

The crows gasped as one, and began to hiss amongst themselves until King Elessar glanced to them. Then, they contented themselves with burning Simeon up with their furious eyes.

"She loves her child, my King," Simeon continuted. If their anger meant to frighten him, it had failed. They'd not seen their precious scion in Tara's prison that day... torturing her and her child. "She loves the Uruk, as well. I did not believe... It was not easy... But there is a closeness between them... Which some Men might have with their own wives. Lucky Men."

This was too much for the Hall. Even well trained servants froze in shock, and cried out in outrage. The King's scowl deepened, engraving upon his noble face. He raised a hand to his Hall, and quiet slowly, reluctantly, restored.

"It is no trick, on his part? No manipulation? No mental coercion?"

Simeon frowned. It was not an easy memory to recall. "The Uruk took a burning blade to the girl's flesh, to seal her wounds. He hung over her after that, with a level of attentiveness of a mother to a child, even more so. It appeared, somehow, that he was sensing her injuries. Her level of pain. He did this often, over the two days. He could not heal her, had no medicine, but she improved all the same. She rode off on his Warg after two days time-with the wound in her shoulder, broken ribs, and a broken nose-yet sitting tall behind him."

He could not mention the fact that she had whispered to Ushatar numerous times over the two days, resulting in Simeon and the other Uruk's ejection from the cave. That somehow their... congress... had some healing power in itself. It was beyond disturbing... Both for the images put unbidden in Simeon's mind, and for the fact that Simeon had found something... beautiful in their intimacy. But he told the king, "They were both possessive of each other... And physically comfortable. There was no trick. I don't think there is a male of any race who could feign the Uruk's level of devotion. I believe him, sire. And I believe that he is aggrieved by our actions. I believe they are all aggrieved, but he is one who means to do something about it other than raiding and hiding."

"Indeed," the King breathed. Such as laying claim to the north-east of Arnor. "Thank you, Knight Simeon. I might call upon you again, to repeat or expand upon your tale."

Aragorn turned to the family of the dead Captain. "I cannot pass judgement at this time. This matter demands further thought. You shall be summoned back into my presence once I have decided what shall be done."

"My King!" Darian's mother objected. "My son has been slain by a trollop! We insist that she be captured and punished-"

The woman's words withered in the sight of the King's cold, steel glare. She dropped into a bow, and did not rise.

"You are all dismissed," Aragorn said coldly, "Until further notice."

Aragorn Elessar rose from his throne, and hurried off the dais. He needed wise counsel. He moved in silence through his palace, his mind chaotic with thought. He hurried to a private courtyard winter garden, finding a bit of peace immediately on sight of his raven-haired queen, sitting on a bench by the frozen pond, in a grove of trees brilliant with small red berries. Arwen was seven months with child now, reading from a book to the little maids who attended on her.

She looked up immediately, a frown touching her face. "We will continue later, ladies," she said, her voice rich with music. The little girls stood, and hurried away, their gowns bright and cheerful against the white and grey of winter.

"I must speak to you of strange matters, my love," Aragorn said, tapping the scroll in his calloused palm.

Arwen spread her hand out to indicate a place by her side on the marble bench, and Aragorn sat, inhaling the serenty of her presence.

"It may be," he began, "That I did not give enough consideration to the matter of the Orcs. Now it seems that an Uruk-hai has survived the War. He is calling himself a Captain of Orcs, and has laid claim to territory in the North."

Arwen was perplexed. "So we were wrong, in believing they would not organize. Will he come against Men in force? Or perhaps the Dwarves?"

"That is what we must determine. But first, let me tell you the full of it."

Arwen nodded, and listened, and her eyes went wide. In the end, she decided, "I am not sure my council alone will serve you. This matter is strange indeed, and most unexpected. All I can be sure about, is that we do not know enough to decide on anything at all."

"Could it be... After all this time... That there are Orcs who might show a more restrained nature? Who might be content to live in the world without bringing destruction down on Men and other races? If there is even a chance of this... Where does my duty lie? Do I remember what they are capable of, and protect my subjects by continuing on, to eradicate the threat? Or do I give a chance to our enemies, that they would not have given us?"

"That is a serious matter. I would advise you to gather more information on the doings of these Orcs, before making your decision. That way you can be sure. But before you make that decision, I would advise you to speak to Mithrandir, and to my father before he departs for the Grey Havens."

Aragorn nodded. A frown of discomfort pinched his brow. "He all but called me a Mannish Sauron," Aragorn confessed. "It was most unhinging. If there is any chance at all that this Captain could bring some order to at least some of the Orcs... I must be certain it is a good thing to destroy him, and them, rather than becoming precisely what he claims of me."

"You should not say that about yourself," Arwen soothed. "You are wise, and just, and good, as evidenced by the fact that you would even consider this at all. It is natural that you think first for the safety of your subjects, and most likely that you ought to continue your present course. Especially if the half-Orc possesses the fire that breaks stone! Yet you needs must wait, and take council, and gather more knowledge before deciding to do anything at all. I do believe in the strength of goodness. Perhaps it grows in all creatures, now that the great evil is gone."

Aragorn bent his head, and brushed his lips across hers. "As ever, my love, you give words to the confusion in my heart. I shall send for your father immediately."

Ushatar pushed his way into his dar, stamping off his snowy boots. His dar was rich and warm, the crackling hearthfire surrounded by not only thick furs, but bright red and orange and yellow rugs and fabrics from his raiding days. He pulled down his hood, shaking out a crown of waist-skimming braids that ran down from a single crest on his head. His hand ran up the shaved sides of his head, wondering that for the first time in his life, he actually felt the bite of the cold.

Tara smiled up at him, from her seat by the fire. Baby Ilzin sat across from her; they'd been playing a game of clapping hands. "She can follow my pattern," Tara reported.

Ushatar nodded, pleased with his daughter's progress.

Tara had healed fast, with the help of Brodha's Orcish medicine. Her grey eyes were bright again, her ivory face flawless. She wore her thick black hair in an Orcish way, braided up to her crown, then spilling down her back, revealing the marks he'd put on her neck. She said she found the bitter cold of the north invigorating... So long as he kept her wrapped in fine furs. Today, she wore the silvery, spotted pelt of a linx, tied as a half-cape around her shoulders.

Ushatar sat down beside Tara, and the baby dropped to her hands and knees, scrambling for his lap. The baby-almost half a year old-squealed with delight as he lifted her into the air, holding her high above his head.

"What happened with Saalcaf?" Tara asked.

Ushatar blew a hard breath. "He named me his Captain, before everyone. Calls it his "Hand." It was taken with some grumbling, mostly from his brothers. I'm not sure if I don't agree with them. One of Draagh's sons would be better placed. But we're going to be at war for a while, and it's agreed that I am a... a fit Captain."

"Of course you are," Tara said. "And I'll take small battles for territory over extermination any day."

"Don't know how small these things will be. If we can't follow that herd of deer into the territory around Mount Gundabad, we don't get through the winter without a hard fight. And I despise camping in the open, above ground, like this. When the scouting party gets back, we'll have some idea of what we're in for. I sure hope they've found a cavern."

"Nemlii says some of her folk might be nearby."

"Dwarves don't like Orcs," Ushatar said. "What are you thinkin?"

"I don't know. We say hunting will be hard here, don't we? If there are others who live here, they must have a talent for doing it. I was thinking... Maybe Nemlii and I pay a visit to her kin. With proper protection, naturally. Who knows what can happen, if Nemlii could put things to them the right way? She says they're not like Men; they wouldn't hold us and try to kill us, just for sticking around with you lot."

He grinned at her mischevious, sparkling eyes, enjoying her ability to attach humor to her ordeal. His woman, he thought with pride, could eat nails if she had to, and her smile would be undiminished.

"Maybe, Tara. Right now, I want to find out about the Orcs here. We've seen their sign. I'm much more worried about how they're living, and how we'll fit into all that. "

"That's probably best. Mind the baby, Ushatar. I've got a bunch of jerky and some turnips from the old cave. I'm going to get a stew going."

"No matter what," he promised, flying Ilzin again, "We're going to have some fresh reindeer to cook soon."

After eating, Tara fed the baby and left her, and Ushatar, to their nap by the fire. She bundled in a cloak of wolf fur, and went to Nemlii's dar.

Nemlii's dar was typically warm and cheerful. She had adorned her tent with several small seats of carved stone, a nod to her heritage. The red-haired Dwarvish female was, as customary, working over a great heap of sewing. She had many sons with her Orcish mate, and those sons had sons, and clothes were always in need of mending or altering. The Orcess Daumani was with her, her new son sleeping in a sling over her chest.

The absence of Faalca-an Orcess who had been butchered by Men, and the best friend Tara had ever had-was still a painful hole in their circle. Shari, too, was missing, though that was becoming common. She had mated the Durub-the Clan leader-before the battle that had blinded him, and her newfound status isolated her from her former friends.

"She ain't happy," Daumani said, speaking of Shari. "Saalcaf has no time for her now, as he's trying to order the Clan properly, now that he's lost his sight. It's not the life she thought she was getting."

"She should be learning from Gadhaal," Nemlii grumbled. "She's not brought us females together but once since we've come North, nor gone around to speak to any of us. She's got no healing skill, and no one forgets what happened by the battlefield, how she cowered while the tarku were closing in on us. If you hadn't gone out there, Tara, things would have been a great deal worse for us. It is much talked about. Shari don't like that, not one bit."

"What else could I have done?" Tara asked. "I sure didn't want to do that! We'd have done better to attack that lot of scum! There weren't too many of them, if we'd planned it out right."

Daumani nodded in agreement, but most of her attention was with her small grey newborn. The young Orcess cooed as the sprog sucked on her finger.

"If Gadhaal had been in charge," Nemlii said, "We would have. But she's only partways in this world now. Ranaash is too old now. Seeing drains her. It's a good thing Gadhaal will take her place as Shaman."

Daumani glanced up. "Your Ushatar is coming, Tara. And Daghri as well."

Nemlii's mate came into the dar first, an anxious scowl on his face. Ushatar followed, Ilzin in his arms.

"Take the baby, Tara," Ushatar said. "We've got to ride out now."

"Ride out? Have the scouts returned?"

Ushatar shook his head tightly. Tara frowned, reading the set of his jaw, the tightness in his face. "Just take the baby," he repeated, placing Ilzin in Tara's arms.

"What's going on?" Tara asked.

"Don't know just yet," he said, but there was a lie in his voice. Both males left quickly.

"I don't like the looks of that," Tara said, adjusting the fur wrap covering her baby. Ilzin was too excited by the presence of Daumani's son, and wouldn't settle. Tara wound up setting Ilzin down, and the baby crawled to Daumani, investigating the other young one.

"It's not going to be easy, here," Nemlii said, sucking her teeth. "I'll be glad when they all return safe and sound."

Ushatar jumped down from his black warg. Saalcaf followed him, and Daghri, who'd made the discovery, led the way. At first, Ushatar could see nothing but endless starry sky, and snow covered peaks. But as they approached the cliff, the scent of blood and new death overwhelmed him. He picked up his stride, jogging until he saw great stains of black blood, still warm enough to melt the snow. There were no signs of struggle. In the middle of the blood pool were the remains of four bodies. Without the blood, and the scent, Ushatar wouldn't be able to tell that the mutilated bodies were Orcish at all.

"Those are our scouts," Saalcaf said, knowing the scent of his clanmates.

Ushatar squatted down in the snow. The bodies were not much more than piles of greasy bones, with some tendons hanging on here and there. He picked up a long thigh bone, scowling at it for a moment. From such destruction, he'd expect to find bite marks. It surely seemed like an animal had done this, though Ushatar couldn't imagine what sort of beast could do this to four Orcish hunters. Wargs would have left bite marks.

And then he saw it, and he immediately looked up to the cliffs around him. Even though he sensed no other presence, his heart pounded from a sure feeling that they were being watched. Finally, he looked over at Draagh. The old Orc nodded grimly.

"What is it?" Saalcaf asked.

Ushatar took a deep breath, then put the femur into Saalcaf's hands. "It's been so well done there are hardly any cuts on the bone, but there's no doubt about it. Our scouts were butchered, for meat."