Muse Quest - Chapter 11: The Experiment
"I have to deliver the... Oh, no." She picked up an empty bucket that lay like a ship stranded in a shallow gruel sea. "Oh, no."
The uruk looked just as disheartened as Eicys when he realized that he had dropped the prisoner's rations.
"I suppose we'll just have to go get some more," Eicys said, hopefully. Please please come with me, she thought, changing her mind extremely quickly. The first time, coming back for more food might be all right. The second... Well, she would feel better with a nearly seven-foot tower of muscle and steel and fangs by her side, to say the least.
The orc peered at her through the murky torchlit gloom, looking reluctant. Eicys put on her most beseeching face, which was very much spoiled by the thick coating of mud that was her disguise. Her companion sighed heavily and jerked his head in the direction of the kitchens. Eicys trotted after him, relieved.
They stumped in silence through the dark passageways of Orthanc. Occasionally another orc would shamble hurriedly by, going about the grim business of the wizard. But suddenly there came the sound of voices that were decidedly not orcish - in fact, it sounded like...
Eicys froze, her sister's name stillborn in her mouth as she fought for control. She must not shout out and give everything away. But oh... Eicys craned frantically for a glimpse of her sister's bush of copper curls amid the marching group of uruks.
There! And that short hair - Eredolyn. And there was Tuima, a head of chestnut hair that bobbed grimly with her limp. Behind her, Dilly's dark cascade of hair fell around her body, and next to Dilly was a blonde someone that Eicys didn't recognize.
Eicys sighed in relief, and realized she'd been holding her breath. All accounted for, then. She suddenly became aware of her companion peering down at her curiously. She shrugged and attempted an orcish grunt, but couldn't resist a final look as the band of prisoners disappeared around a corner. Then she hurried to catch up to the orc, who was pushing his way through the kitchen doors.
"You again," the cook snarled as the big uruk stood before him, Eicys bobbing beside him. "What do you need now - Ungrath?" The kitchen servants and a few orcs snorted with harsh laughter, much to Eicys' confusion. Her bewilderment deepened at the look on her companion's face: a sort of bitter resignation. He held himself very stiffly.
Eicys decided he had just been insulted in some way, and wondered why he didn't make use of that enormous scimitar. He was much bigger than anyone there, and she knew he could lose his temper.
But here he seemed to have a firm control of it. He spoke tightly, explaining that there had been an accident and they needed more food for the prisoners. The cook sneered. "And here was I, thinking the feeding of those dungeon rats was its job." He gave Eicys a smack with a big spoon he was holding, and she yelped. The cook regarded her contemptuously. "Faugh," he said. "Another one of these weaklings you've taken up with? Well, you two ought to get along right well, hey, Ungrath?" Again there was a ripple of cruel laughter. Eicys looked desperately at her companion, then jumped as the cook spat at her feet.
"The master has no use for softness, Ungrath. He is not happy with you. He would not mind my disposing of an experiment that has so obviously failed." He jerked a head toward Eicys on the last word and eyed a rack of carving knives.
"P'rhaps yeh would not find it so easy teh dispose of," Eicys' companion growled menacingly.
At this, the cook and several orcs burst into jeers. "Sure, Ungrath, Experiment, Freak. Yew take `im."
"Yeh'd be killed with his spoon there afore yeh could get through yer pimple of a mind that yeh'd been insulted - Ungrath."
"Weakling!" The cook turned to the others, enjoying the attention. "I can't see why the Master didn't throw the ungrath out. He usually kills the failed ones, right?"
The jeers increased, and the big uruk's fists clenched spasmodically. Eicys' eyes were wide. Surely now he would -
The uruk snarled ferociously at the onlookers and they looked startled and nervous. Eicys agreed wholeheartedly with the feeling: her companion looked terrifying. He turned his gaze on the cook, who quailed and sullenly pushed a bucketful of gruel toward him. He took it in one meaty, mottled fist, shoved it at Eicys, then turned on a heel and strode from the kitchens, accompanied by renewed taunts and insults. "That's one ungrath that failed purkshog," sneered a stunted goblin, half-in, half-out of the Black Speech. Eicys, hurrying after the big uruk, suddenly and belated realized what "ungrath" meant to these creatures.
Experiment. And it was her new friend's name.
Suddenly fuming, Eicys stormed down the corridor after him, the gruel bucket clutched to her chest, imagining wiping the smirk off those horrible faces with every type of modern weaponry she could think of. She was annihilating the orc barracks with a mental tank when she finally caught up to the uruk.
He had stopped in a dark corner and was staring furiously at nothing. Eicys imagined he was having daydreams rather similar to her own. Her anger evaporated, and she felt awkward and frightened. His fists were still clenched, and Eicys was relieved to see that they did not hold his weapon.
"Um..." she squeaked at last. "U - Ungrath? Is it - Is it ok if I call you that?"
"'S my name," the uruk grated.
"Does it really mean - that?"
He looked up and snarled at her. "Yes."
Eicys swallowed hard. She had been forgetting that he was an orc, bred and trained solely as a killing machine. Fear and pity and curiosity warred in her chest, and finally, seeing his dejected ugliness, fear and pity were conquered.
She had made a mistake; she saw immediately that she'd gone too far. His face contorted in fury, and his contradicting eyes burned with hurt. He leapt to his feet and his heavy mottled fist crushed into her stomach even as his eyes widened in shocked apology.
Too late. Eicys flew backwards and hit the wall with a crunch, then collapsed in a bruised, gasping heap, blessing her armor. Ungrath rushed over, hovering, horrified.
Eicys cringed away from him, wheezing, and Ungrath looked appalled at himself. He knelt next to her helplessly. Eicys scooted away as best she could when feeling like all her ribs had splintered, but he looked so miserable that she managed to gasp, "Sorry." Ungrath started convulsively, staring, and Eicys flinched, a spasm of pain racking her airless chest.
When she looked up again, the first tendrils of breath creeping tentatively into bruised lungs, he reached a hand toward her hesitantly. Eicys squeezed her eyes shut but didn't move, and he seemed to take this as consent. He gathered her into his thick arms, picked up the gruel bucket, and set off at what seemed to Eicys to be a horribly jolting jog. He smelled terrible.
She was very glad to be set down on a smooth stretch of floor, empty but for themselves. She concentrated on drawing breath into her starved lungs. At last they seemed to remember how to work on their own. The sound of ragged, steady breathing filled the stone nook. Ungrath was staring at her with a distracted guilty horror. Eicys would not meet his eyes.
"I coulda killed yeh," he rasped. She still did not look at him. It was true, he could have killed her. He had held his temper so evenly in the kitchens, then with her -
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry - I don' know yer name," he said.
Eicys shook her head mutely, glad she had an excuse not to speak to him.
"I don' usually - I never - I always hold it in. Always. I don' know why..." he stopped abruptly. "Ah, mebbe they're right. I am a weak one. Right proper failure. And takin' up wi' the likes of you, actin' yer nursemaid on account o' sum funny eyes..." His own eyes hardened. She finally looked up at him, defiant.
"Eicys," she said.
"My name is Eicys. And I do not need a nursemaid, and you are not a weakling," - she touched her bruised ribs gingerly - "and you owe me an explanation."
And, as she had hoped, the hardness cleared from his eyes and he was once again his kind, ugly self. But he was looking thoroughly miserable. "An expl'nation?" he asked gingerly. Eicys nodded, firm. He grimaced. "Of - of m' name?" Eicys jerked her head, `yes'. Ungrath bit a black lip. "Er, yeh see... the Master, sharkey, y'know... well, he - he wants on'y the best fighters, yeh unnerstand, and he had teh, um, practice - to get it right, see?"
Eicys shook her head, and Ungrath sighed heavily. "Right daft, yeh are. Do I have teh say it? I was one of the practicings." Eicys stared at him. He took a deep breath. "I don' r'member much of it - and glad I am, too - but it hurt. I dunno how I used teh be, but I know I ... changed. I've an idea - I'm pretty shor - I's only a scrawny little orc afore the Master came, and a scared `un." He stared at his thick clawed hands, then laughed, bitter and reckless. "Sum things don' change. But at first yeh couldn't tell - He didn' know. He tried all sortsa things. I done - I done sum awful stuff. Pretty soon he sees I can' take it, I'm no good. So he tries it on sum o' the other little goblins, and forgot abou' me. An' it's a good thing. Dunno why he didn' kill me.
"The others... they know I don' like to fight. I'm too strong, see - still haven' gotten used to it. And they like bein' tougher than summun my size. So I let `em." He shrugged. "I never got mad enough afore - afore today - mad enough to hit summun."
"I'm honored," said Eicys drily, and before he could react she fixed him with a light blue stare. He looked puzzled and wondering. Eicys felt terrible for him. She gave his hand a squeeze, resisting the urge to scrub off the feeling afterward. It was worth it: he beamed hideously. Eicys felt like crying.
"Well, I have some chores to do," she said instead, scrambling to her feet. She pressed a hand to her ribs, wincing, and looked up to see the heavy bucket already in Ungrath's hand. He grinned crookedly at her, she smiled back, and they set off together for the dungeon.
* * * * * * * * * *
The five girls were herded roughly into Saruman's audience chamber, and W'lore managed to step on three feet and jab an elbow into an unarmored side before being thrown before the wizard with the others.
The Istari was an imposing figure, his white robes and hair a stark contrast to his obsidian throne. The white's a nice contrast against his soul, as well, Tuima thought contemptously. I'll bet he did that on purpose.
Arrogant, power-hungry bully, thought W'lore, grinding her teeth.
Yikes! Dilly thought. I think where he started to go wrong was his choice of manicurist. She eyed his long oval claws.
Holy cow, he's perfect! His robe even has those color shifts from the books! Eredolyn thought, a twinge of nervousness drowned in her glee.
Cebu didn't think at all. Her mind was a blank haze of fury; at the slightest provocation she would grab the wizard by his hair and slam that haughty face into his own throne.
Into the storm of Cebu's face, Saruman smiled, a slow, thin, cold smile.
Even Eredolyn shivered. His black eyes gleamed maliciously.
"So..." he said softly. His deep voice rolled threateningly around the walls.
"Close the door," Saruman commanded, and the servants hastily drew the carved doors shut, leaving the White Wizard alone with his prisoners.
The girls were already shaken by merely his voice: it was dark and imperious, yet soothing, honeysweet. His eyes, deep ancient wells, bored right through every soul.
Saruman would find the answers. His thin lips curled into a smile at that thought. Very soon, he would know everything his prisoners knew: from whence they came, their connection with the strange surge of elvish activity in Fangorn, and, most importantly, the whereabouts of the Ring of Power.
Thus long and steadily he looked at each girl. There was a weak spot somewhere, and he would harrow it out.
Tuima, though carrying an obvious limp, stood tall and confident before the wizard's glare: like Luthien before Morgoth in the Elder Days. She would not be so easy to break.
E.I. Cebu was weaker, but her mind was focused on other things, such as impaling the wizard's head on a pike. No, she was far too angry to deal with, although - perhaps, later, some fun could be had...
Obvious strength was in Dilly. She was hardy, and stood firm next to W'lore, whom she had bonded with in those long hours in prison. W'lore herself had withstood the darkness of dungeons for many weeks now, and, although she seemed to shrink under the wizard's gaze, she was also glaring defiantly. The insolent Rohirric rat had actually endured far worse than this: he would get nowhere with her.
As for Eredolyn...
The wizard studied her for a while. The girl was weak. Her mind was struggling between absolute awe for the wizard and her first real fear in this place. Any defiance in her was already slipping...
Suddenly Saruman found it: a weak spot. An advantage. The smile curled wider on his lips.
"I appologize for my servants dealing so roughly with you," the wizard said to his guests, his voice low and sweet. "I am afraid precaution is of vital importance in my lands. Who can know in these dark days if an outsider is friendly or hostile? My house was open and friendly to all in the days of peace, but such days I have not seen since the reign of Helm Hammerhand..."
He paused, waiting for it - and there it was. A light flicked on in Eredolyn's eyes. "You knew Helm Hammerhand?" she asked in wonder.
Saruman smiled benignly. "Why yes, child. He and I were good friends, long ago. Are you so wise to know of his history?"
Eredolyn blushed. "I just read a little. But his tale is one of my favorites."
"Well, well," the wizard said admiringly. "Never had I seen one so young study the tales of Rohan! No doubt there is much about that culture you wish to learn still..." His resonant voice lingered in her ears.
Everyone else could not believe what they were hearing. "Oh come on!" W'lore snapped. "I could teach her that!"
"But does W'lore know the lines of kings by heart?" asked Saruman, looking at no one but Eredolyn. "I do! Thengel, Folcwine, Folca, down to the days of Eorl the Young who first rode into the green fields with banner and horn in hand!"
Eredolyn was lost in awe at his words: brimming with knowledge, flowing ceaselessly. "Wow...I wish I could learn all that..."
"SHUT UP!" everyone cried. Tuima turned to the wizard, "Look, Saruman!" she snapped. "Whatever you want, you will not lure it from us. Our strength is greater than that!"
"Ah, presumptions of the ignorant," the Istari sighed, still eyeing Eredolyn, "It is a pity they are not as eager for wisdom as you." At last he took his black gaze from the girl and turned to the others. "But I have still not established whether you are all harmless or a menace to my household. Thus I shall have my servants escort you to more decent quarters, until we can talk again."
As if on cue the servants came in to escort the girls out. Saruman turned to Eredolyn. "If you desire at all to speak further on the tales of the Rohirrim, my knowledge is at your disposal. Feel free to ask."
"Thank you, she won't!" Dilly cried, and she grabbed Eredolyn's arm as they were led from the chamber. But Eredolyn was still enraptured at how much this old man knew. Even if he was the enemy, it wouldn't hurt to hear a few tales from him...