"Rincewind tried to force the memory
out of his mind, but it was rather enjoying
itself there, terrorizing the other
occupants and kicking over the furniture."

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

/\_,,_
( *ᆽ* )

20. Four Hunters

The Four Hunters hurried through the forest, back to where the orc trail began in the glade, and then following it in a western direction.

Kat climbed Legolas' shoulder almost immediately, but it was not easy to stay there at the speed he kept.

Ouch. Your claws! He grimaced (but in a cute way; no matter what Legolas did, he managed to look good doing it).

Sorry, but I keep losing my balance. Can you run smoother?

This is a forest if you had not noticed.

After perhaps half an hour with Kat scrambling hither and thither over him, Legolas resolutely grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, turned her belly-up and proceeded to carry her on one arm, cradled against his chest like a baby.

Hey! What are you– Argh. This feels super awkward!

What do you think being pierced by four sets of claws feels like?

Hm. You have a point, I guess. But don't drop me. Or actually – you can; I'm really agile in this body and would land on my feet.

I will not drop you. I can draw a longbow; I should think I could manage to carry a cat for a while.

Ah, you mean those biceps aren't just for show?

Those what?

Biceps. Your arm muscles. Kat gave him a brief anatomy lesson – quite needlessly, because apparently he knew even more about it than she, though he didn't have names for all of the muscle groups.

I learned anatomy in my youth, when I trained to become an archer. One has to know where to aim to make a swift kill. And of course I have slaughtered many animals, too.*

The company dashed speedily through the woods; Legolas not in the least encumbered by his cat burden while his companions soon broke into a sweat. The sounds of their heavy breathing and the tramp of their feet mingled with the occasional squeak and flutter of wings from startled birds in their path.

Kat leaned her head against Legolas' chest and listened to his fast and steady heartbeat. She had not been entirely truthful about the awkwardness of this position; she actually liked being held so close, and it was a far more comfortable way of travelling than riding on his shoulders. It made her relax despite the stress of having lost the hobbits.

I'm a bit surprised that elves who seem so nature-friendly would kill animals, she thought after a while, referring to their earlier conversation.

It is the way of life, I guess – some eat, some are eaten, he replied thoughtfully. An animal has such a very short life anyway, and to lose it a little prematurely to help feed another is not so bad. Elves do not kill needlessly, and never cruelly. He paused. We have to cut down trees as well, sometimes, he admitted.

Gasp! Cut down trees! Oh, Legolas, how could you?! I'm so disappointed now.

You are mocking me.

Mocking you? Me? She tried to sound innocent.

You think my love of trees is amusing.

Actually, I do. She smirked. And cute. You're a cute tree-nerd.

Cute – aye, nerd nay. Whatever it means.

You're so conceited.

If I am, it is your fault for flattering me all the time. His lips twitched as if he fought to keep a straight face.

But I never flatter you!

Your eyes do.

Kat hid her face in her paws. You'll have to carry me for the remainder of this quest now. Can't walk with closed eyes, sorry.

Oh, but you can look at me as much as you want. I do not mind at all. I could be your personal… What was that word? Supermodel.

A few weeks back, Kat would have been embarrassed by his teasing; Legolas' deadpan face and completely serious tone of mental voice had tricked her many times, but by now she easily saw through his dry humor.

Seriously, I'm dying here. Stop being so funny. Her chest bubbled with silent mirth; it had to stay in there because sadly laughter was one of the things she could not manage in this body.

Then she quickly checked herself. Gosh, I'm so shallow and insensitive. I shouldn't laugh and joke around – about dying, too! – when the hobbits are in great danger, and Saruman might lay his hands on the Ring, and–

Please, don't stop, Legolas interrupted. You have no idea how cheering it is.

Really?

This journey would have been so much bleaker if we could not joke in the face of danger. He held her a little closer. I will never forget how you comforted me in Moria.

Kat was genuinely surprised at how earnest he sounded. Had her presence meant that much to him? She remembered how profoundly he had hated the darkness and the narrow caves and tunnels, dreaded them even, and she knew he had enjoyed listening to her stories – but it was heartwarming to realize she had actually made a difference.

Ever since coming to Middle-earth, Kat had felt useless and a burden, but now for the first time she felt she had achieved something.

Alright then, Mr Supermodel, but you wear too much for the job; that cloak and tunic hide your nice shape. You should take them off.

You wish. Chuckling, he ran on, blushing only a tiny bit; he was becoming used to Kat's jokes as well by now. Little did he know how serious she was.

/\_,,_
( *ᆽ* )

The forest ended and the landscape became rocky and rough. They climbed a hill and continued through a pass between the cliffs. There was no visible trace of the orcs on the hard ground here, which might have slowed the Hunters if they had not brought a cat.

That way. Kat pointed her paw in the direction where she knew they had gone. She smelled them easily; their pungent odor lay in the air like a trail of dense smoke. The drawback was that it effectively masked any traces of the hobbits' scent, but there was no reason to believe they would dispose of them before Isengard anyway.

The sun set, yet they doggedly trudged on; Kat's nose let them continue despite the increasing darkness. She was very impressed with the others' stamina, particularly Gimli's. Aragorn had his ridiculously long stride and Legolas was an elf, but somehow Gimli stayed close behind despite his heavy build and short legs.

Not until right before sunrise did they take a break, and by then even Legolas looked weary. It was very brief. They munched some lembas, drank water, went to the bathroom in the bushes, and then they were off again.

Not long after their break they discovered something strange: five orc corpses. Two had been beheaded, and Kat turned her head away from the grisly sight. After examining them, Aragorn surmised there had been a quarrel between two divisions of the orc company, for one of the fallen was of that new, large type wearing the white hand symbol, and the rest of them were from Gundabad in the north. Apparently Aragorn could see that on their clothing and other cues.

A faint whiff reached Kat's nostrils, barely perceptible through the stench of unwashed orc bodies and blood.

Let me down. She hurried to the spot where the scent was strongest. Merry and Pippin lay here! I can smell them on the ground.

Legolas translated and Aragorn quickly crouched beside her. "And Frodo? Was he there?" He looked closely at the gravel and stones.

I can't smell him, nor Sam.

"I hope nothing bad happened to them," said Gimli worriedly. "Could the orcs have killed them?"

But thankfully there were no hobbit corpses anywhere. They must be alive still.

Aragorn began to pace to and fro, looking distressed. "Sam… his and one more pack were missing. And we found only two hobbit daggers in that glade. What if the orcs didn't take Frodo and Sam at all!"

"But surely we would have found them on our way if they had lingered?" said Legolas.

"We should have. Unless they left by boat, but the canoes were all there."

If the orcs keep Frodo and Sam off the ground, it makes me unable to smell them, Kat thought. They could still have been here.

"I sincerely hope that is what has happened." Aragorn sighed heavily. "But only when we catch up with the orcs will we know for sure. I just hope I haven't made another bad decision."

They continued; running up a hill with new energy now that they knew at least two hobbits were alive. On the top they halted briefly, looking at the panorama unfolding. Before them the ground sloped steeply downwards to a vast grassland, and behind them the sun was rising, illuminating the lands to their east.

Aragorn sadly looked at the river they had paddled on, following it with his eyes. "Gondor! Gondor! Would that I looked on you again in a happier hour." He gravely recited what sounded like a poem about that country, before turning back to the route ahead.

Jeez, the man's got a way with words. Are all kings here that well-spoken?

You should hear my father. Legolas smiled wryly. Then something caught his attention and he stared into the pale sky. "Look!" He pointed. "There is the eagle again." They had seen it before, one of the evenings on the Anduin, and just like then it was disappearing north.

Kat tried to see it, but was far too near-sighted. Aragorn could not spot the bird either, but instead he saw something else; a group of people moving across the plain below. The orc company!

Now the Hunters needed neither a trail, nor Kat's nose to continue the chase. It was daylight and though the orcs were far away, they were plainly visible on the flat ground. In addition they were exceptionally untidy, and in their wake the pursuers found plenty of trash; left-over food, ruined garments and even stinking piles where someone had crouched to defecate right in the open.

Filthy creatures, Kat muttered. Worse than dog owners who don't pick up poop.

Pick it up…? Your world seems increasingly strange.

They followed the ridge to where a small creek had delved a passage down the cliffside, forming a natural staircase, and hurried down it. Below, the ground was covered in fresh grass between tufts of yellow hay, and the air was much warmer – it seemed spring had come here early. Where the orcs had crossed, the grass was brown and downtrodden.

Legolas drew several deep breaths, half-closing his eyes with pleasure. "Ah, the green smell!"

Cute plant-nerd, you.

Tell me the meaning of the word 'nerd'.

Kat explained, while they started out on the green expanse at an increased speed thanks to the flat and smooth surface.

I see, Legolas thought when she was done. In that case, aye, you can call me a nerd. Just like Gimli is a stone-and-axe nerd, and you are a book nerd. And Aragorn… Hm. Nay. Aragorn is no nerd.

Definitely not. He's the antonym of the word.

Aragorn suddenly stopped. "Someone left the trail – a hobbit I think!" he exclaimed. "Kat, help me out."

She jumped down and sniffed the ground. It's Pippin! He escaped!

Together they followed the small footprints, but too soon they were crossed by orc prints and then turned back to the trail. His flight had failed.

"Oh!" Aragorn bent down and picked up something; a green leaf with silver veins.

"The brooch of an elven-cloak!" exclaimed Legolas and Gimli simultaneously.

"Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall," said Aragorn. Pippin must have dropped it on purpose, to let an eventual follower know he was alive.

"That's heartening," said Gimli. "We don't pursue in vain."

Legolas agreed, but added that he worried Pippin had been punished for his attempt, and it made him even more eager to continue. It pained him to imagine young, innocent hobbits driven forward relentlessly like cattle.

All day the Hunters ran, but to their dismay they did not seem to draw any nearer to the orcs, though it was hard to tell down here at the flat plain. A nervous urgency had fallen over them after finding the brooch, and Legolas' arm around Kat was tense. His anxiety affected her as well, and for once, neither of them felt like continuing their friendly banter.

When the sun set, the company took another break, and a discussion about what to do next followed. Should they continue through the night, or rest?

Legolas opted against the latter; the orcs would only gain further on them if they did.

"Don't the orcs need breaks in their march?" asked Gimli.

"These are unusual orcs to be out in daylight," Legolas replied. "If they rest, they will certainly not do it by night."

They talked over the options some more. Kat had trouble following the fast exchange, but she got the gist of it. Legolas wanted to continue, Aragorn was ambivalent, and Gimli worried he was too tired to continue without a pause.

"If we're resting, the night is the right time to do so." Gimli's head was drooping with fatigue.

"My heart bids me to go on," said Legolas, biting his lip. "But we must hold together. I will follow your counsel."

In the end they let Aragorn decide, who sighed and said all his choices had gone wrong lately, but perhaps they ought to sleep through the night and regain some strength. And running in pitch darkness was difficult anyway.

After making his decision, he and Gimli threw themselves down on the grass and fell asleep almost immediately.

Legolas remained standing, staring into the dusk in the direction of the orc trail, a deep frown clouding his forehead.

Come. Get some rest you too, thought Kat. I know you're worried, but there's nothing you can do right now.

I can keep watch. I don't need much sleep.

Aren't your legs tired?

Well… Of course, but… Oh, alright. He went over to her. I shall sit for a while, but I will stay awake.

When Kat rolled up in his lap and began to purr, his taut body gradually relaxed somewhat, but his eyes did not close.

Kat tried to doze off, but sleep would not come to her. She was less tired than the others after being carried, and in addition all the recent events were catching up.

Disturbing visions began to parade before her inner eye: the orc whose face she had clawed, a hobbit dangling over another orc's shoulder, Nellas with her blond tresses matted with blood, Aragorn wiggling out the arrow from her deep wound, and worst of all, Boromir's normally so kind and handsome features twisted in rage as he tried to catch Frodo.

In an attempt to dispel the ugly memories, Kat tried to picture Nellas healthy and well, riding a canoe with a smiling Boromir. It did not work. What if Nellas' wound had begun to fester, and what if Boromir felt the pull of the Ring again and abandoned her to go after Frodo?

Kat? Can I ask you something?

Legolas' troubled voice was a welcome distraction from her own dark thoughts.

Yes?

Do you think orcs have souls?

I have no idea. Why do you ask me that? Kat peered up at his frowning face through the darkness.

Well, you seem to know about souls. You told me once about your faith and what humans in your world believe happens after death, remember? And you have been to the Halls of Mandos.

I saw no orcs there, I can assure you.

So then they have no souls. He sounded relieved.

I didn't say that. They might have their own Mandos place, where an orc with a pretty voice greets them. Who knows? I doubt they spend the afterlife singing, though.

I guess you are right. His face fell.

Is anything wrong?

I… I killed an orc yesterday. Before Gimli and I heard Boromir's horn. I have killed many of them before of course, both there and in Moria, but this time… well, it was not a clean shot. I hit… his eye, but the arrow did not pierce his brain. He ran away wailing, and obviously very much in pain. I chased after him, but it took a while, and when I finally found him he screamed so much, and he had… soiled himself, and I ended his suffering with my dagger, but… He broke off.

Kat could not answer. Shaken to the core, she realized she had seen her friends kill sentient beings and not thought about it at all. On the contrary; her cat's instincts had made her rejoice in their deaths. She, who even carried spiders out of her apartment rather than smack them!

The insight shocked her, and terrified her, and made her want to cry – all at the same time.

Kill. They killed people, her friends were killers. Legolas was a killer.

Soldier, she reminded herself. The orcs were the enemy, and he had acted in self-defence.

But still… He had taken lives. This kind, handsome, playful elf whom she loved was also a dangerous warrior, and killing foes was a part of who he was.

Please. Say something…

She tried to shake off her dismay. Sorry, I was just… Look. Even if they have souls, this is a war. People get hurt.

Aye. If I had not killed him, he would have killed me.

You did what you had to do.

I did what I had to do.

They were silent. The grass whispered in the wind, and somewhere far away an owl hooted.

I'm so sorry you have to do this, though, Kat suddenly blurted out. You who are such a kind person. You deserve to be safe in a forest with your trees and just… be.

He hugged her, burying his face in her fur. Ai, how I wish I could. But this… This is necessary for that to happen. We must destroy the Ring and end the Dark Lord. We have to.

Kat turned to rub her nose against his cheek, which was slightly damp, and her heart burned in sympathy at his distress. We will win, she thought with a confidence she did not feel.

Aye. The Valar are on our side; we will win. He sounded a lot surer of the outcome than she. It is the road to victory that troubles me. For instance, knowing that the hobbits are at the orcs' mercy torments me endlessly, and I desperately want to run there and free them. But in order to do so, there will be more killing, which I don't look forward to… He sighed. Wiping his face with his arm, he added: Enough of this. Thank you for listening to my silly, guilt-ridden ramblings. I am acting like an elfling.

You're not silly. She pressed his hand with her paw. If you had felt no remorse at all, that's when you need to start worrying.

A new silence ensued, and at last Kat started to feel drowsy. But there was a bitter taste in her mouth, and this time Legolas' warm body against hers was no comfort. With dry cat's eyes, Kat internally cried herself to sleep.


A/N:

Ah, I know this is supposed to be a humorous story, but killing is ugly and Kat (and Legolas) has to learn to live with it.

What do you think, do orcs have souls? Do they get reborn into Valinor? Imagine the elves' surprise if they do…

*) Yes, elves eat meat, I know they apparently don't in the movies but I go by book canon. ;)

As usual I'm thrilled over how supportive you all are! Thanks for taking the time to review, dear Earthdragon, Milly Kanzaki, Tyla Lokisdottir, Katia0203, Eowyn, Lady Erulisse, pineapple-pancake, Guest, criodeus, Xaiael, rookie villain and FanaticShipper. *hearteyes*