"Baartazgur, tear a strip of your tunic!" Ushatar barked. "As long a piece as you can!"

Tara had her eyes closed, and one was swelling already. There was blood coming from her nose, and Ushatar thought it might be broken. She was conscious, though. He could tell by the firm pressure of her hands, clutching the fur of his vest. Her body was shivering slightly, but it was surprisingly relaxed.

As if she knew, completely, that he would save her, and there was no more need for fear. Though full of adrenaline and fury, something inside him sighed in grateful release.

Ushatar gently balanced Tara between a bent knee and a strong arm, and wrenched the torch free. He tossed it to Ras, and told Bartaazgur to give the strip of black fabric to Ras as well.

"Run it through whatever grease dripping down the torch that you can manage, without igniting it!"

Men were creeping slowly but surely down the narrow, difficult Orcish stairway. Only one at a time could come, but the first would be down in moments.

Ushatar didn't dare blow the tunnel up. It could easily crash down on them as well. He quickly tossed his satchel to Ras, saying, "Tie a few of them at the end, rope to rope! Hurry!"

Once the explosived were laid, they ran, twice as fast as the Men who'd reached the cluttered pit floor. As soon as they'd reached the first tunnel, Ras lit and dropped the fabric. He gave a wild cry of glee, watching the tattered ribbon ignite. For a moment, Ras's entire world was the sprinting flame. If the Men saw the spark of fire, they paid it no mind. How could it hurt them?

"Run, lunatic!" Ushatar screamed over his shoulder to Ras.

The blast, when it came, was devastating, but they were sheltered by the winding tunnel. And still, the cries of men-muffled by smoke and falling rubble-reached their ears.

But Ushatar and his company were well ahead now. Hurdling piles of bodies and banks of earth, Ushatar brought Tara swiftly down the officer's corridor, all the way to the bottom of Orthanc, where she'd once been imprisoned. He saw nothing, thought of nothing but getting to the hole in the earth that would lead to the escape tunnel.

"They might try to head us off, in Dunland," Baartazgur suggested.

"We'll deal with that when we get there," Ushatar said. "Tara, ambal, I have to slide you through this little hole now. You're pretty hurt... It might be painful."

She swallowed, and nodded slightly, and he carefully pushed her through. She didn't make a sound of complaint. The rest followed, Baartazgur passing Ilzin delicately to Ushatar, then taking the baby back on the other side.

The air was cooler, and everything seemed far more silent than just on the other side. Ushatar looked about, knowing that no two-legged creature had hollowed out these paths.

"We're almost out of here," he said quietly, clutching Tara to his chest. "Now we run hard and steady, and then we're free."

They set a good pace. Ushatar was terrified that he would injure Tara, or that she was in shock. But they were not followed, at least not yet. It would take some time before the Men found the secret passage, out of the breeder's floor and into the archaic tunnel.

"Ushatar!" Ras hissed, as they reached the crossroads.

Ushatar looked back, and Ras slowly pointed to the floor. A moment later, he felt the vibrations beneath his feet. He saw pebbles bouncing down the walls.

Before he could scream for them to run, a giant reared out of the water, screeching in fury. It was as pale as the moon, eyeless, a scaled beast three times as high as an Uruk with no end in sight. As it screamed, it's jaws unhinged, showing thousands of thick fangs, as long as Ushatar's limbs. And then the jaw shot forward, making a grab for Ras.

The torch went out.

"Ras!" the Uruk-hai shouted.

"Here!" the Orc responded, a clawed hand on Ushatar's back. The beast moved so smoothly in the water, and the darkness was so profound, that only Ras had a good sight of it.

"Hold it off!" Ushatar shouted to Ras. "Baartazgur, come with me!"

He hid Tara as far from the crossroads as he dared. "Give her the baby!" Ushatar hissed. "Tara, ambal, you have to wake up now! You have to hold Ilzin!"

Weakly, she pulled the baby close. She was alert enough to perceive the beast, and she shook in terror, but didn't dare scream. Ushatar could see her eyes wide in the darkness. He pressed his mouth to hers roughly, then darted away.

The beast screamed in pain, a terrible sound, as Ras inflicted a blow. But their weapons were not long enough. The creature kept diving for them, slamming into the rocks, as they struck it with swords until the floor was too slick with blood for them to move without slipping. The beast didn't seem to tire. Just as Ushatar was desperately thinking of a way to kill it, the cavern illuminated, and a dozen Men ran out to fight, only to find themselves the prey.

The beast, somehow sensing the light and the Men, dove down again. The cries of the Men were blood-chilling, but with it's prize, the beast decided it didn't want to gain further injury in pursuit of more food. It disappeared into the water again. Ushatar grabbed up a torch, dropped by the hapless Men, and they began to run again, just as six more Men came into the cavern. Ushatar spun to attack, and battle was joined again.

But one of the Men was shouting for his fellows to stop.

"Enough blood's been spilled!" shouted the brown-haired warrior. "The cause is unjust, hear me!"

Ushatar and his companions overcame five of the Men. They circled the sixth-the one the others had named traitor as they died-and prepared to kill him as well.


Ushatar frowned, and spun to see Tara on her feet, leaning against the wall, Ilzin in her arms. Her gown was soaked in blood, and he realized that she could be closer to death than he'd first thought. And still bleeding.

"You know this Man?" Ushatar demanded, as Ras and Baartazgur held the knight at bay.

"He... tried..." She drew a hard, ragged breath, wincing in pain. "He tried to help me."

"I can't let him go, Tara!"

"Let him come... Leave him... later..."

Ras hissed his disapproval. "Let me kill him! Let me have this tark's skull for my drinking vessel!"

Ushatar was of the same mind: kill the knight, who was a threat to them still, no matter what Tara thought.

But then another idea came to his mind. "Baartazgur, take your belt and bind his hands. Take his weapons. You will come with us, tark."

"As a snack for the road," Ras spat.

"No, Ras," Ushatar said firmly. "I have another use for him."

Ushatar rushed to put Tara in his arms again. She didn't want to give up Ilzin, so he carried them both out. The sunlight of the morning was gone, and though it was midday, it was dark and snowy.

A heavily bearded Dunlending sat outside the tunnel, with cloaks over his arms. "You made it!" the Dunlending exclaimed, astonished.

"Aye," Ushatar said. "With many thanks. Don't worry about this tark. We'll take good care of him."

"Did it work?"

"Masterfully," Ushatar said, neglecting to mention the four explosives still unused in his satchel. Aarth-Anghum would have a look at them, when they joined their Clan. Perhaps Orcs as well as wizards and a rogue Mannish chief could exploit the great magic.

"Well hurry, now, hide your forms, and get gone!" the Dunlending urged. "Your beasts still wait in the woods. Go, before the Gondorians search this camp."

As Ushatar and his party left the village, Cormick's Men set fire to some of their huts, to illustrate a struggle and give Cormick room to deny his participation. Ushatar took Tara and Ilzin on his warg, and made Simeon ride behind Baartazgur on Ras's sturdy animal. As the snow turned to a blizzard, Ushatar spun Morulur, and ran for the mountains.

"Light the fire in the back," Ushatar directed, as he lay Tara down on the cave floor. "There's no way they could have followed us, but we need to be cautious all the same. There's a village of Rohirrim not to far from here. Ras, gather some firewood..."

"I'll do it," the Orc said, his eyes bright with barely restrained madness, "But then I'm off."

"Off where?"

"Off," Ras repeated. "I can't go back. I can't... I have to get away from myself, from everything I know."

"You'll be killed," Ushatar said.

Ras sneered. "My revenge hasn't yet begun. I'll die, but not before I take a thousand Men with me! I'll be glad to die, then. The pain and blood of a thousand Men isn't enough to- Not for Faalca."

"I cannot talk you out of this," Ushatar breathed.

"You can help to raise Broghud. Teach him to hunt and fight, in my place. You're a powerful one, baalak. I'll feel better knowing he's in your care. You swear it now!"

"I swear," Ushatar said. Compelled, he grabbed Ras's face, bent, and pulled the Orc's brow against his. "You'll always have a home with me, Ras. When you find your peace, our home will be in some northern mountain. You'll know the scent of the Clan."

"No peace," Ras growled, pulling away. He bobbed his head briefly to Baartazgur, and then the aggrieved Orc ran out into the storm.

Ushatar bent over Tara, quickly and carefully unlacing her right sleeve, and the top of her gown. She'd managed to nurse Ilzin on the run, and now the baby slept peacefully by her side. But blood was still slowly leaking from the wicked cut in her shoulder. Ushatar saw that the knife had been twisted, dragged down to scar her breast. He had to steady himself, his hands shaking as he feared her death. He raged that some Man had put his scars on her.

"How did this happen?" he breathed, dreading what he would hear.

She swallowed hard. Her voice was weak as she said, "The tark captain... He tried to... wanted to..."

The growl came from Ushatar's belly. Over it, he demanded, "And did he?"

A faint smile twitched at the corners of her beautiful mouth. "No. I killed him. Stabbed... through his throat... when he got... close enough."

Ushatar's growl fell into soft laughter. "That's my girl! You are a warrior, Tara! But I'm afraid we're gonna have to burn this shut. It's bleeding still, and that's no good."

"Burn," she whispered. "Burn it."

Ushatar kissed her brow, then stood up. He drew his knife, and walked to the fire, staring at the knight as he heated the blade. "You like it, how she suffers?"

"It was not my doing," Simeon said quietly. His horror was apparent, in the pinch of his lips, and the wideness of his grey eyes.

"It was your doing to ride with an army attacking Orcs, to try to wipe us out!"

Simeon dropped his gaze, the scent of his fear strong.

Ushatar grunted a laugh. "We're not going to eat you, tark. Don't worry."

"Pity, that," Baartazgur muttered.

Ushatar returned to Tara, to find her frowning.

"Stop... fucking with him..."

"Hmm," Ushatar grunted again. "Here now, take my hand, and close your eyes. Breathe deeply."

She obeyed. When the blade touched her flesh, sizzling her blood and filling the cave with the smell of cooking meat, her hand clenched down on his. A little shriek escaped her, but she was as brave and resolute as any Uruk... until it was over. Then the pain overwhelmed her, and the terror of her ordeal came into sharp focus all at once. She clung to Ushatar, her face pressed against his thigh as she sobbed.

She was in horrible pain, and it broke his heart. He could tell by the fluttering of her pulse, and her fast breath, how much she suffered. He bent over her, stroking her hair and whispering to her that she was safe now, that he would never let anyone harm her again.

"I'm afraid I've no pain-dulling drink for you," he whispered. "I should have thought to bring some. I only cared about coming to find you..."

"Just love me," she breathed, crying still.

" 'Course I love you," he said. "Forever. I'm just glad you still love me."

"Ushatar..." Tara turned her liquid grey eyes on him. That little determined set of her mouth, that he'd both been tortured by, and grown to love, hardened her lips. "Love me!" she commanded. "Make it go away..."

"Aww... Ambal..." His traitorous body reacted immediately, but Ushatar said, "I don't want to hurt you. I think you've broken ribs, and maybe your nose, and you're bruised everywhere..."

"Love me because of the pain! Ushatar, I need you..."

He drew a ragged breath, and nodded. "Baartazgur! Get this whiteface and go outside for now."

Baartazgur grumbled for many reasons, but obliged. "Get up, meat," he said, grabbing Simeon's bound hands. The knight was staring, jaw unhinged, as he understood what was going to happen between the big, wild-looking Uruk, and the injured girl from Gondor.

"Get that look off your face," Ushatar warned, "Or I'll change my mind about your fate!"

Baartazgur pulled Simeon out into the snow, and Ushatar carefully lay beside Tara. He unlaced his trousers, and turned his body at an angle to hers.

"You sure about this?"

"Ask me again," Tara said, eyes hot as a smile warmed her face, "And I'll change my mind about your fate."

It was too much for Ushatar. He carefully helped her to her side, as much as she could turn, and gently put her leg atop his hips. Her sigh of pleasure-pleasure that erased all pain-assured him that all was well. Ushatar took her face in his hands, sinking into his mate, and after all the hell they had come through, for those moments the world was at rights again.

When Ushatar called Baartazgur and the knight back in, Tara was finally asleep. He'd done his best to please her into exhaustion, and the peaceful sound of her sleeping breath soothed him immensely.

"All right, Knight. You've got that little satchel on. Got any paper in it? Got any ink?"

"I do," Simeon said, bewildered. "I'd planned to write a letter to my king, before... all of this began today."

Ushatar chuckled richly. "That's very good, tark. Because that's just what I have in mind. I'm going to dictate a letter for you, to take to this King of Men. And you will do it. You can steal a horse down in that yonder village, or comandeer it, or whatever it is you folks do. You'll tell your king how my woman and baby were stolen from me, behind my back, as I fought to keep them safe. You'll tell him how she was assaulted and beaten, and forced to kill to keep from bein' raped and murdered, and her baby murdered too. Tell them how our people are attacked and murdered, just for being alive. Then you'll tell him that we're retreating to the north, territory that I now claim, beyond the Ettenmoors, as a place where Orc-kind can live as they will, in freedom, without the scourge of Men hunting and murdering them! Do you understand me?"

Simeon coughed, shocked. "You want me to tell King Elessar that you're claiming the north for the Orcs?"

"Was I fuckin' unclear? Or does the King of Men think he's the king of the world now, like the Eye wanted to be? We won't lie down and die to please him, whatever he thinks he is! Get your ink together, and get ready to write!"

Simeon, flustered, tore into his satchel.

Ushatar glanced to Tara and Ilzin, peaceful, and remembered that he'd vowed to make them and every Orcish mate and child safe. Patting the bag full of Cormick's fire-beasts, Ushatar grinned, and began to dictate his letter to the Mannish king.

Two days later, the sun came up. Tara could not breathe without pain, but she was tough and strong, and she refused to stay down. She surprised Ushatar by offering Simeon her hand to kiss before he left.

"I remain... terribly sorry, Mistress, for your plight. I suppose... Well, you're where you want to be now."

"That's right," Tara said firmly. She was unaware of Ushatar's letter, and Simeon's mission. "I hope no harm comes to you, for trying to help me."

"Oh, I think I'll have some explaining to do!" Simeon laughed nervously, his eyes darting to a smirking Ushatar.

"Do a good job of it," Ushatar instructed. "There's no sense in us being at war forever, if we can have peace. But we're ready for war, too. And there are many of us, beyond the mountains. We're far stronger than you can imagine."

"All right," Simeon said, swallowing hard. "I respect you, Ushatar. I know you've made Tara happy, and that's what matters in the end. I... I think I would like to have peace, if it's truly possible. Or at least, I now know things I'd never imagined, about your kind. I wish good luck to you, and your family."

"He don't need luck," Baartazgur said gruffly. "He's a good Captain."

"I dare say. The Uruk who took Isengard, with only two other swords! No, I don't want to meet you at the head of an army, Ushatar! That would be a black day, for the world of Men."

"I don't want that," Ushatar said, embarassed. "I just want peace. So you make sure you do what you're supposed to, Knight Simeon."

Within the hour, Ushatar and Tara were mounted on Morulur. Baartazgur-devoted, now, to Ilzin-carried the baby in a sling made of yet another bit of his frayed tunic. They set out for the North, to find their Clan, with the morning sun shining down on them, and a dream of peace for their kind in their hearts.

But if peace failed, Ushatar thought, patting the explosive devices again, he would be more than ready for war.

The Sequel to "Prisoners of Isengard" is coming shortly, entitled A Kingdom of Ice and Blood.