"She flaunts herself. Have you ever seen anyone so gaudily dressed?"

"You, Shari," Sulmurz said, as he frowned at the stick in his hand, too damp to generate a spark for the kindling. "Damn this above-ground living!"

Shari hissed softly. "I'm an Orc. She's a tark. She only calls attention to her differences. She should make herself smaller."

"And you're Durlob. Put her in her place, then. Who knew it could be so cold? My balls are like to freeze off!"

Sulmurz threw his entire bow-drill in disgust. After a moment of staring at it, where it lay on the chilly skins of his dar, his yellow eyes lit up as he realized, "Why didn't I just set the damned thing next to someone else's fire to dry it out?"

"Idiot, why not just light your kindling at another's fire? Clearly my sire got all the brains."

Sulmurz grinned, flashing unusually large fangs. "I got all the rat-cunning and brawn. What do you want, sprog? And more to the point, what's in it for me? Fighting with the Hand's tark-mate isn't a winning game for an old soldier Orc. Ain't even very fun."

"Durlob, not sprog, fool. You're cold because of him. Because he, the mongrel half-breed, decided we should live in this waste, rather than kill the whiteskins off and live in comfort. If Salcaaf had his sight, he'd never have agreed. He's weakened by his blindness... and his awe of the mongrel's fighting ability."

"Fighting ability!" Sulmurz growled. "You don't know nothin about that! I killed more whiteskins than he did!"

Shari held her smile hidden. "I'm sure he thinks he could beat you."

Sulmurz's growl turned into a full sneer. But it died away, and he frowned, and said, "We keep the laws. I ain't attacking the Hand, half-breed or not. And you shouldn't talk stupid about the Durub, mate or not. Salcaaf ain't weak. Maybe he should throttle you a bit to prove it."

Shari shrugged. "He only let a mongrel lead his entire clan to a frozen waste to die."

"Ushatar's the Hand. He can decide. He's got Man-smarts. He knows things. And I hear... I hear rumors he's got wizard magic now."

"Do you! He uses the Power's arts now? This is much worse than I thought! We're doomed, I think. Without proper Orc leadership, that is."

"Saalcaf ain't a proper Orc now? He lost his sight protecting your over-puffed haunch! You'd be cut up in little pieces like that Faalca. All of you wenches. That's what Men do."

"Yes. Exactly. Men, mongrels, and wizards. What I mean is, Salcaaf must rely heavily on his Hand. The Hand is all but the leader. And so, we need a proper Orc Hand. Not a mongrel with a Manish mate and wizard magic."

Sulmurz frowned again, heavy furrows wrinkling his broad brow. "I don't know, Shaari. Everyone with a blood tie to Salcaaf's already given oath to Ushatar."

"They gave it unhappily. If something happened to the mongrel, they wouldn't mind."

"He won't die easy, that one. Anyone killing him would be killed himself, if not in the doin', then for punishment."

"Yes, he'd have to commit a crime, and be killed for it. That would be one way."

"But... then who'd be Hand?"

Shari finally let her smile show. "I'm Durlob. Why not the brother of my sire?"

"The brother of..."

Shari threw her hands up in frustration, and snapped her well-filed claws in his face. "You, Sulmurz! You could control-I mean save-the Clan."


Shari reclined back on the cold hide, and let the seduction of power work its own magic.

"He's well liked. She's well liked. She gave herself up to protect the females and sprogs."

"Mannish cunning. You let me think on it, Sulmurz. You don't think or say or do anything yet. Just keep an eye on that mongrel, and tell me what he's up to. Can you do that much? To keep your balls from freezing off every day until you die? To keep our Clan from being ensnared, long after the Power is gone, by a mongrel and a tark bitch weilding the Power's filthy arts?"

Sulmurz's brow wrinkled more. But finally, as Shaari knew it would, the furrows smoothed out, and Sulmurz flashed his fangs again. "I can do that, Shaari. But you'd better make a good plan."

"Leave it to me. Now come with me, we'll get you fire from the Durub's own hearth."

"Butchered?" Tara asked. The word was lost in a sudden frozen gale. She could taste the snow in the wind, and she clutched Ilzin closer to her chest, and pulled her fur cloak tighter over the baby.

"Cut up on the spot," Ushatar confirmed. He stomped ahead in the snow, reaching his dar quickly and sweeping up the tent-flap. Inside, the glow of fire welcomed him, mingled with the scents of the remaining herbs they'd managed to bring along from the Southern lands. Ushatar squatted down by the fire, warming his hands. Behind him, on the wall, was the hide and charcoal tapestry of a wolf he'd drawn in the old cave, the cave where he'd learned-somewhat-to be free. The old sensation of choking whenever he stood before the male Orcs of the Clan, of his heart beating towards explosion and his eyes searching for a fight to start, hadn't gone away, but he'd learned to ignore it well enough. He'd learned to do for himself rather than fight for scraps, and to accept his fellow warriors as his brothers instead of rivals, or tormenters, or even food.

He glanced up, to see Tara standing over him. Her hood was still up, but she'd opened her cloak and Ilzin bounced against her hip and tugged on her long black braids. His whelp-born free-made him grin, but Tara's pale iron eyes threw him into turmoil maybe greater than that of facing the Clan as a whole. It had been two months since he'd rescued her, but he'd believed then that maybe he should have taken her back to her own kind instead, and he still wondered if he ought to have done so. She'd come with him-embraced him in every way-but he didn't forget that he'd stolen her, and nearly broken her, and put a mongrel whelp in her arms long before she'd surrendered to him. She said she loved him. He thought he knew what that meant, but he couldn't imagine why, except for that he'd done so much to ensure her old life was too dead to ever return to-her own knights had proven that brutally-and she was too tough and stubborn to admit that, so she called it choice and love instead.

"Why would they be butchered, Ushatar?" Tara asked, sitting down beside him. There was a bit of the jerky stew still left in the pot, and she plucked a bit of meat out with her fingertips and fed it to Ilzin.

"Meat," he said, throwing a big shoulder up in a shrug. "I'm guessing whoever it is starves like we do, and maybe their own dead are too bony to keep the survivors alive. Or maybe they just like Orc-flesh. What I don't like is that there were no tracks around them. The snow must of drifted over them, so I can't tell what hungry creatures might have done it."

"But what about the reindeer herds?"

"Their sign, we found, and wasn't but a few days cold. Saalcaf says there's a Mannish tribe up here, to the east, by the water, that hunts on them, and on sea-monsters too. There'll be Orc clans too. I don't care who thinks they own the deer. If they range from Gundabad to the eastern sea, they go through many territories. We'll find them and hunt them, and meet our hiding neighbors that way, maybe. But if our neighbors are so hungry that they eat our scouts, it's like that the deer herds are thin. That's the truth of it."

"The Dwarfs must be living somehow. Dwarfs don't eat Orcs and Men and other Dwarfs. Nemli and I will go to meet them."

"I go with you."

"And if Dwarfs and Orc-kind war here too? I think we might be better off going to meet them on our own!"

"Might be. You might also wind up in a stew pot, whatever Dwarfs are supposed to eat. I'd like to at least try to stop that from happening, if you please. I'll bet some of Nemli's boys will feel like I do."

"I couldn't stop you then," Tara said, smiling as Ilzin drowsed in her arms.

Ushatar bowed his head, and stared into the fire. "You could do a lot to me, Tara. Just about anything. But you ain't stopping me from watchin' your back."

A blizzard raged for three days and nights. For most of it, Ushatar sat in frustrated company with the smith Aarth-Anghum, experimenting with one of the precious gifts the Dunlending Chief Cormick had given Ushatar. Aarth thought he knew what made the wizard's powder explode when touched by fire, but he wasn't sure, and he didn't know where to find the necessary ingredients that might let him attempt to recreate the formula. Ushatar hid his dismay. He'd counted on the-fire-that-breaks-stone to give his Clan an edge over whatever enemies it would find.

The fourth night was clear, and Tara gave her baby to Daumani and climbed onto Ushatar's great black warg. She wrapped her arms around Ushatar's waist, and they set out under the stars, Nemli riding most unwillingly behind her eldest son, with her three other half-breed boys-warg riders all-riding close on their heels underneath a frozen, star-studded sky. The snow was pure and unmarked by tracks, but Ushatar felt eyes on his back. The feeling only grew as the mountains rose into great black shadows before him; the sword on his hip called to him, and his sword hand tingled to grasp it.

They hunted around the edges of mountains for caverns, and found nothing but small pocks in the rock-face. But finally, the warg Nemli rode drew to a stop before a low, unobtrusive rise in the land, far overshadowed by the sky-piercing peaks around it.

Morulur, Ushatar's black warg, skidded to a halt as soon as Ushatar thought the command.

"This it?" Tara asked Nemli. "Not one of those higher peaks?"

"It must be," Nemli said, her words fogging in the cold. "Look, it's got the three peaks crowning it, like my Da told me ages ago. And the entrance is but a crack in the rock. I might be wrong, but we'd better check."

"Not a bit of light coming from within," Ushatar said. Unease swept over him, but his belly rumbled at the same time, and he thought the hunger might drive him to madness soon.

"No tracks either," Tara said, disappointment sinking her heart.

"No, there wouldn't be!" Nemli protested. "Who would have come out in this weather? Most like, they're under the ground where it's warm, drinking spirits and roasting their winter stores. We've no choice, Tara. You and I were right to come. We'll present ourselves to their King, and perhaps have a good meal too."

Ushatar swung his leg over Morulur's neck and jumped down, sinking calf-deep into fresh snow. He looked behind him briefly, knowing that the wargs had left a deadly sign from the camp to the cave. He went to the edge of the cavern, and peered in. In the far distance, he thought he smelled smoke, but it was faint. Old, or deep in the mountain. Either way, there was no light to speak of, and his Uruk-hai eyes couldn't make out the path beyond the shadows where the moon and starlight failed.

Behind him, Nemli's son Khalgurz said, "It's a tight path, but we can make it. You smell that smoke?"

"You can make it. I less so, and the females not at all. I smell it. It's far off. But there's no light."

"Good thing I've got my sire's eyes," Khalgurz said. Half of Ushatar's size, the compact half-Orc, half-Dwarf moved around Ushatar and explored down the path a ways, while Ushatar stood with his hearing turned to the party outside the cavern.

Outside the cavern, Tara glanced up at the mountain peaks. Bare of any tree or shrub, they were high enough to blot out the stars, but the moon was behind her, and she could see it's light reflecting on slicks of ice and patches of snow. Beneath her, Morulur tensed his muscles and shifted his weight, but Tara had no Orc blood, and she couldn't read the warg's thoughts any better than she could translate the sudden slight shift in his posture.

But she felt the air change. It had been cold but crisp; now she felt the breeze die, and the air thicken damply. Above her, mist began to grow in the crags of the mountain, as if a cloud was just beginning to settle on its bulk. Frowing, Tara looked over her shoulder, but there was no fog or cloud closing upon them, from the way they'd come. It seemed very much like the mist was growing out of the mountain, and rolling down towards them, thickening by the moment.

She nudged Morulur with her heels, but he growled low and long. "Not now, damn it," Tara breathed at the warg. Finally, he moved closer to Nemli's sons on their beasts, but they'd all taken up the ill mood, and they snapped on each other as they closed ranks. "All we need is more bad weather," Tara complained, pretending she didn't feel the sudden rise of fear in her gut.

In the cave, Khalgurz came back up the path, and soon Ushatar's half-Mannish eyes could make his form out of the darkness.

"The smell of smoke is just as faint down a ways, but I begin to smell blood. No life to speak of, but something made or ate a kill in here not long ago. It's a good cave though, I'll bet you that. At least we can go back and tell the others, and get a party who can explore it more deeply. I don't think we ought to bring the females down tonight, though. Whatever it was made the kill, it might come back again."

"Did you hear that?" Ushatar demanded, just as Khalgurz himself whirled around to face the inside of the mountain again.

"Sounded like something breathing."

"Ain't a troll," Ushatar said. "Look, it's a mist! Coming up the path!"

"Mist don't come from inside caves, Azathorn!"

They turned and ran to the entrance, where a thicker mist was enveloping the four wargs and their riders.

"We'd better go," Tara called, disappointed. "Seems weather's coming in..."

It was at that moment, as the mist closed on them, when Ushatar first noticed the moving shadows in the mist.

And then one of them flung down on him from above, dropping him to the ground and digging its piercing claws into his neck.