Ras opened his eyes and remembered that a Ranger hunted him, and he was supposed to die. He tried to jump up, and noticed, his courage dripping away, that he hadn't moved.

My back's broke, he thought, and the bastard means to torture me.

But the joke was on the Ranger: injured as he was, Ras felt no pain. The reek of man and beasts, blood and herbs was in his nose, but instead of trying to turn his head to see the gloating prick, Ras stared at the tightly thatched roof overhead, and tried to move even the smallest didget on his own.

"Won't have much luck with it," a high voice said. "I've poisoned ye. Not enough to kill ye, but ye won't move for a while."

The scent of man became sharper, and the old face peered over him. Ras glared, remembering the old woman all at once. Fury and relief went through him: what if he hadn't been able to take back his broken body, and kill the Ranger?

The old woman shook her head. "Hehehe, look et this one. What trouble ye runnin from? Not raidin. Revenge is it?"

"Dunland," Ras realized. "You're of Dunland. Will you kill me?"

The weathered face grinned. "Mebbe. Cold winter. Wolves et the deer. But fer this supper, Marren gots rabbits. I'll even shere."

She was as good as her word. Worse, though, she could move him at her will. She'd held his head up for the broth, spiked with the blood and guts and all else she might have discarded. An Orc wants it, she said.

"What did you poison me with?" Ras asked, once the food was gone.

She only laughed. "I dint find my way past some 60 summers, since I was a lil lass, te tell ye the way of herbs fer free. And so it seems ye got nuthin I'd want."

"Just meat," Ras spat.

The woman chuckled again, and went about her business. Infuriatingly, Ras couldn't see her. He felt himself positioned on some sort of hide over what smelled like a wooden board. The hide was likely deer, and quite old. If he turned his eyes to the left, he could see herbs hanging overhead to dry. He looked to the right, and there was a cloth-sheep's wool by the scent-over a wall that breathed cold, like stone. A fire crackled somewhere to the center of the room. The old woman was behind it, out of his sight. But soon Ras heard a sound of soft grinding, and a salty, earthy scent tinged the air.

He shut his eyes. She was a witch, a sorceress, she could kill or heal as Brodha did. Sick for a moment, he thought of the occasionally whispered-accompanied by much spit-legend of the Witch King. Some sorcerers, and sorceresses, had the power to make the dead live again.

She was in pieces. She was consumed, by clan rite. The only one who hadn't eaten was Ushatar's tark woman; Ras hadn't wanted her to, and it seemed the Uruk had kept it from her. They'd be far North now, running on a warg. Tark woman or not, Ras had watched for two days, to be sure no patrols could follow them from Isengard's new garriason. Their escape was clean.

He hadn't known, until that last moment, when Ushatar got his tark back, that he couldn't go with them into the North. The Gondorian blood he'd tasted freeing Ushatar's bonded lover might as well consume him. There was no clan left for him, without Faalca.

When those moments passed, that he thought of his sprog, he closed his heart and thought the imp would be taken care of. He had her eyes, anyway. A part of them both lived on, like when the flesh was eaten, only far better.

"Sick wid it, aint cha?" the old woman asked.

"Keep outta my thoughts, witch woman," Ras spat, and she laughed, and shuffled around. Now, Ras heard her snatch down herbs, and put them in the bubbling pot. To keep me poisoned still, he thought bitterly.

"Didja have somewhere to be, Orc? We're snowed in. Yer Ranger and his friends aint commin. Might as well give an old bit yer ear. Might make her find more rabbits, stead of doin' ye in."

Without giving him a moment to consider, she went on. "Had me a girl once," the witch said. "Such a pretty lass, had blue eyes. Always wanted some blue eyes, now they've gone pale blue and creamy and I cain't see much but the form of yer face, so they ain't worth much. But she was a pretty thing, mind me well, Orc, and rare sweet. She come from the far North, and she tek me there, and we make a house at the edge of the cold Northern sea. Was big stones everywhere, and the beach was little stones, and the waves, they howled! Aye, I loved that house by the sea, and that lass was my sunshine."

She paused for a moment, then sucked her teeth, however many were left. "Eh a proper Man would ask, what happened?"

Ras remained silent, tried to close his mind to her babble.

"Aye, what happened indeed! Life was sweet for a while, but one day, I saw 'er begin to stare at the sea. Thought nuthin of it, e'en when she grew quiet, n'tired like, and whenever I asked, she said, nuthin was a matter. I smile n think, it's always gwine to be the same.

"Until one day, the pretty lass was gone."

Ras exhaled slowly. She cannot touch me, he thought. Not inside myself. I won't let her in, not at all. "She died," he said, "Leave me be."

"Ney! She did not die, Orc! I found me a sealskin on the pebble shore round the time she went, thought nuthin of it. The beast came out of the waves, wanted her for isself! Took the shape o'man, an brought 'er down t'the waves. Near broke my heart. I was in t'house, all alone like, seein her all about. She was my 'eart, ye see. I couldna live without my 'eart. Couldna think how. T'worst of it all was that she left me! She didnt 'ave to go inter the sea! We mighta lived ferever on that rocky slope, gatherin herbs and saltin' fish, but she went on wit'out a care in the world t'what she left behind! She want 'er Seal Man, and she followed him inter the waves. I 'ad to leave; gone as she were, it were her house by the sea."

"You're a witch. You could just change her back."

"Aye, if I found 'er."

A moment of silence. Then the woman said, "I used ter go each day, to the beach, and look deep at the eyes of the seals, always thinking I'd find 'er. Ne'er did."

Ras lay still, thinking of the terrible silence, each time he sought to feel Faalca's presence. A moment later, cackling jarred him from his fury. The witch was howling, and Ras snarled, "What's funny? What at all in this world is funny?"

"Ach! Ye damned fool!" she laughed. "Dragons may fly, but there i'nt no Seal Men! Or next ye believe yer Ranger'll turn inter wolf, an slaughter us both t'nite. N any fool kin see, ye lost yer bonded one. Don't got t'read yer head. It bleeds from yer."

"When I get loose," Ras hissed, "I'll kill you."

Her laughter turned into a warm chuckle then. "Well, mebbe ye will. Till then, yer back's broke, ye ain't movin a bit until I see it mend."