Muse Quest - Chapter 22: Culture Clash


Ungrath tore through Orthanc's echoing black hallways, scimitar in hand. Orcs dove out of his way. There were a lot more of them out than usual, especially for daytime, and they moved in packs, peering into corners and jostling each other in unpleasantly high spirits. Everyone knew something was afoot. Ungrath hurled himself down the stairs to the dungeons, falling more than running, landed on his feet, and barrelled onward, further down into the black pits beneath the tower.
When he heard Eicys' voice, he was going almost too fast to stop. He flung out a hand and caught hold of an open cell door on his right; there was a grating squeal of stone and metal and splintering wood, and Ungrath skidded to a halt. He looked ruefully at the half of the door still clenched in his fist. Then he threw it aside and tried to listen for Eicys again over his own harsh breathing.
The dungeons were silent, but with the sort of silence that implies that several people are all trying very hard not to make a sound. Ungrath looked around helplessly, in a sort of panic. He had heard her!
"H'llo?" he panted, his voice grating.
There was a faint noise down the corridor. Ungrath flung himself toward it, swung around a corner - and almost crashed into a small group of people. They stumbled backwards, gaping, terrified, groping for weapons. In front, blue eyes wide -
"Eicys!" Ungrath choked. He felt limp with relief. She's not dead, they didn' ketch `er, Hand an' Eye, she's arright...
"Ungrath?" she said, astonished. He nodded, his chest still heaving. "Where did you come from?"
"Down," he said, jerking his head. "Forge-work t'day." He started forward again. "Eicys -" The little group behind her suddenly bristled with weapons, all trained on him.
"Guys, it's okay!" Eicys said hurriedly. "I know him!"
There was a pause. "So?" said Tuima.
Eicys shot her a dirty look. "I'll be right back," she said to the group at large, and tugged on Ungrath's hand. Hejumped, pulled free, and followed her down the corridor, throwing a look over one massive shoulder at Eicys' friends, who watched him suspiciously, gripping their weapons.
"What's wrong?" Eicys asked him when they were alone. "What happened?"
He swallowed a deep breath. "They said... they said someone was tryin' teh escape, and they were gonna come an' see the fun... when they caught 'er..."
Eicys looked frightened. "But we haven't heard anything... We haven't even run into any orcs." She paused. "Except you," she added.
"What're yeh gonna do then?"
"We're getting out of here!" Eicys said, smiling happily. "As soon as we get the others, we're leaving this pit behind and never coming back!"
"Oh," said Ungrath.
"I can't wait," she said dreamily. "No more disgusting food and oversized armor and being cold and dirty and tired..."
"Oh," Ungrath said again. He scowled at the floor.
"Eicys, yeh can't," he burst out suddenly. "Yer never gonna make it outta here alive."
"Yes we will," Eicys argued, startled out of her daydreams. She grinned at him. "Especially if you help."
He looked at her for a moment, a furious debate raging behind his eyes. Yes, he probably could get her out. He knew how good he was at fighting...
Ungrath closed his eyes against the memories. If he agreed to fight again, if he got her and her friends out of Isengard...
She'd be gone -
Yeah, but she doesn' belong here... Eye,
no one belongs here, but `specially not Eicys...
She's leavin' anyway. I help, an' mebbe she'd survive -
But I wouldn',
he realized. If he wasn't killed getting her out, Saruman certainly wouldn't let him live much longer afterwards...
"Ungrath?" Eicys asked worriedly.
He looked down at her and sighed. "Yeah," he said roughly, wearily. "Yeah, I'll help."
Eicys beamed, and it was almost worth it. "I'm glad you finally showed up," she said, adding jokingly, "I was afraid we were going to have to leave without you!"
"Yeah," Ungrath said miserably.
She cocked her head, puzzled. "Ungrath? You okay?"
"What?" he said. "Oh. Yeah, I'm fine."
"It's just... You don't seem too happy about this." She peered up at him anxiously. "Don't you want to get out, too?"
He blinked. "Get out? O' where?"
"Of Isengard!"
He frowned. Then understanding struck him like a fist. "Wha'... me, too?"
"Of course!" Eicys said in surprise. "You didn't think I'd just leave you here?"
Ungrath was silent.
"You did," she breathed. "You thought I was just going to take off, without even saying goodbye."
The uruk shrugged one massive shoulder. "Didn' think yeh'd care," he muttered.
Eicys looked indignant. "What? You're my friend! Of course I care!"
Ungrath's head snapped up, and he stared at Eicys. There was a dead silence.
"What?" the uruk managed at last.
"I said of course I care."
"No..." he said, his voice strangled, "before tha'..."
Bewildered, Eicys said, "You're my friend."
Ungrath took a step backward.
"Ungrath..." Eicys pressed. "I can't believe you... You agreed to help and everything, and you thought you'd have to stay here? But they'd kill you!"
Ungrath nodded absently.
Taras, concerned and impatient, moved toward the two of them, unseen by either. Ungrath probably wouldn't have seen a mumak bearing down on him. He was struggling to cram his thoughts back into some semblence of order, and failing miserably. "I..." he stammered. "I'm yer... But..."
Void take it, what's wrong with me? He took a deep breath, and said, very carefully, "Yer serious?"
Eicys blue eyes were anxious. "Of course."
Ungrath took another step backwards.
"An' - an' you want me teh come with yeh?" he persisted, as though trying to detect a trick.
Eicys nodded mutely.
Ungrath backed clear into the wall. He stood there a moment, staring at her. She stared back at him, her fingers twisting together nervously. Morgoth, she is serious, he realized. And slow as sunrise, an enormous ugly smile crept across Ungrath's face and grew until his weird eyes were dancing with joy.
Eicys grinned back, relieved. "So, you're coming with us, right?"
If it was even possible, his smile widened. "'Course," he said happily.
"Good," said Eicys firmly.
"What?!" Taras exploded from just behind Eicys.
She spun, startled almost out of her wits. "What's with you?" she snapped, made irritable by her fright.
Taras ignored her. "We're taking an orc?" he demanded, loud and appalled. Ungrath's smile vanished. Down the corridor, the other Immies stopped talking and stared at the three of them in a sort of horrified shock.
"You're not serious," Dilly and Eredolyn said, more or less simultaneously, and in more or less identical tones of disbelief. Eicys closed her eyes. This was not going as well as she'd hoped.
"Are you crazy?" Taras was saying wildly. "Are you completely crazy? He'll turn us over to Saruman first chance - he'll murder us the second our backs are turned! Kill it now and let's get out of here!"
Ungrath's fangs glinted in the faint torchlight as one fist closed around his scimitar. "Jest try," he growled volcanically.
Taras' sword swept from its sheath in a single elegant movement; he moved protectively in front of the group of girls and pointed it at Ungrath. The uruk dragged Eicys out of the way and snarled at Taras, a grating slavering sound that made everyone back away hastily. Taras stood erect and motionless, his prison rags hanging around his tall, lean form, his sword and eyes both gleaming cold and deadly.
"Stop that!" Eicys cried, jumping back between the two of them. "Just stop it, okay? Listen to me."
To her surprise, they did; though Taras kept his sword out. As she was standing directly in front of it, this made Eicys more than a little uncomfortable. "I kinda hoped to break this to you guys gently and all, but there isn't time," she said, scanning her friends. "This is Ungrath." She indicated, unnecessarily, the massive uruk just behind her shoulder.
Ungrath's gaze slid nervously across the Immies' faces. They stared back at him in varying degrees of loathing, fear, and fascination. He hurriedly fixed his eyes on the ground and wished fervently to be somewhere else.
"Look, I know he's an orc," Eicys was saying, "but he's - he's, uh..." She searched frantically for the word.
"That's not an orc," Tuima muttered not-quite-under her breath as she eyed Ungrath's enormous bulk. "That's a troll.[/]" Ungrath looked up, his dark eyes furious. There was a quick intake of breath from Dilly. Tuima stared back at Ungrath coolly, her expression contriving to indicate that, against all evidence, the uruk was beneath her.
Eicys bristled. "Look, he saved my life, all right? Ungrath is my friend, and if you don't want him along you can just find your own way out of this place, because he's coming with me. Now Taras, stop waving that stupid sword and let's go." She pushed Taras aside and marched to the front of the group. "Come on, Ungrath," she said.
Ungrath blinked, shut his mouth, and followed, sidling gingerly past the Gondorian. "Yeh didn' have teh do tha'," he muttered to Eicys. "They're not gonna be happy..."
"Well you didn't have to start growling and stuff at Taras. Now he's really going to be suspicious."
"Couldn't'a made it worse'n it was," Ungrath muttered. "An' he shouldn't `ve pointed tha' sword at yeh. You never did nothin'."
"Neither did you," Eicys said simply. Ungrath shot her a startled look and was silent. "He'll get over it," Eicys told him. Ungrath craned to peer over his shoulder: the Gondorian was glowering fiercely and his knuckles were white around his sword hilt. Ungrath seriously doubted that Taras was going to `get over it'. The tark saw him watching, and pointedly pulled his sword from its sheath another fraction. No; he was definitely nowhere near `getting over it'.
Ungrath bared his teeth and moved protectively closer to Eicys. He was feeling slightly dizzy, as though the earth had just heaved up to dump him on his back, then shifted so that he'd ended up on his feet instead. He wondered if he'd rather just be on his back, where things made sense.
Then Eicys shot him a look of suppressed excitement and anxiety, her blue eyes twinkling from beneath the heavy orkish helmet. "Be there soon," she said, and Ungrath had to fight to keep himself from grinning like an idiot again.
Taras watched the two of them with a twinge of nervous foreboding clawing at his middle. He didn't like this at all. Orcs were for killing - that's what they were created to do, and what Taras had been trained his whole life to do to them. Fear and hatred of orcs were practically bred into Gondorians: anyone who viewed them with any other emotion didn't live long. Taras had known the wretched things had the power of speech, but he'd never heard anything from them but swearing and threats. He had certainly never spoken to one, and the thought of having one for a companion was simply ridiculous. More than that - it was wrong. There were some things that just didn't happen, and Taras liked it that way: straightforward, honest. Simple.
He was startled out of his thoughts by Eicys' cry of surprise. "She's not here!" she exclaimed, staring into an empty cell.
Tuima hurried up. "You're sure this is Wlore's?" she asked.
"Yes!" Eicys wailed. "I'm positive!"
The Immies looked at each other. A silent "now what?" hovered in the air.
"Well," said Eredolyn. "Maybe she already escaped." It sounded absurd even to her.
"Or maybe Saruman let her out and she's back to working in the kitchens," Dilly ventured.
"Or maybe neither," Tuima said grimly. The others exchanged apprehensive glances.
"Well," the Elf said finally, "there's nothing we can do. We have to get out of here before it's too late."
"What about my sister?" Eicys demanded.
Tuima hesitated, thinking. "I think we should split up," she said.
"What?" several people cried.
"Why?" asked Dilly.
"It's the only thing to do," Tuima said. "If we all stay to look for Cebu, we're all sure to be caught. This way, at least some of us will get out."
There was an unpleasant silence as they thought about all the possible meanings of "some of us".
"I'm staying," Eicys said. "She's my sister." Wordlessly, Ungrath moved to her side, folding his massive arms over his chest.
Taras' thoughts boiled furiously. One thing he did not plan on was allowing anyone to be alone with the orc, even Eicys, who seemed to know it best. But the last thing in the world he wanted to do was let Dilly go on alone. If only someone else would volunteer...
Silence.
Please, please...
Silence.
Taras took a deep breath.
"I'll stay too," he said with his eyes shut. When he opened them again, most of the Immies were looking at him curiously, except for Tuima, who looked deeply relieved - she had obviously been thinking along the same lines as Taras - and Dilly, who looked shocked and a little hurt. Taras closed his eyes again.
"But you can't leave the others alone," Eicys protested. "I'll be fine with Ungrath."
"No," said Taras. He tried to think of something else to say, but couldn't. "No."
"Yes, I will," said Eicys. "You really shouldn't leave the others. I appreciate it and everything..."
"I'm staying," Taras said in a tone that defied all argument. He hadn't felt so wretched in three years.
"Well," said Eicys awkwardly. "Thanks."
"Wait a minute," Eredolyn cut in. "How are we supposed to find our way out if Eicys and the - uh, and... Ungrath... are staying?"
Tuima looked up quickly. "Don't you know your way around?" she asked Eredolyn. But the girl shook her head.
"I stayed on the top floors the whole time, and I never even really found my way around there. I'm as lost as anyone."
Tuima said something in Sindarin that she probably shouldn't have. "One of you will have to come with us," she said wearily to Eicys and her enormous shadow.
As she had expected, Eicys folded her arms and said stubbornly, "I'm staying to look for Cebu. Ungrath can go with the rest of you." Ungrath looked at her sharply. "Um...Won't you?" Eicys asked, sounding a little uncertain.
"I'm stayin' wi' you," he said mulishly. "Yeh need lookin' after, Eicys."
"So you've said before," Eicys said dryly. "But Taras is coming with me." Taras was silent. Of all the ironic... he thought furiously. And of course he wouldn't let Eicys go alone, but - Valar, why this? He clenched his fists and threw an agonized look at Dilly, who was staring unhappily at her feet. The knot in Taras' stomach tightened until it hurt.
"Please, Ungrath," Eicys was saying. "This is the only way."
No, thought Taras. No, there had to be another way. Once before he had left the people he cared about, thinking he was doing the right thing - sacrificing himself by drawing off the orcs. And what had happened? He had survived. He had no idea what might have happened to Eomer. And Lothiriel, his baby sister, the person he loved more than anyone ...
Taras swore under his breath and turned away sharply. What else could he do? There was no doubt in his mind that leaving a young girl like Eicys alone with an orc was as good as sentencing her to death. But to let the orc go with Dilly -
But he didn't have a choice. And he knew Dilly could take care of herself; he had seen it before. And she'd be with the Elf, and her friend Eredolyn - who, Taras admitted reluctantly, was more than a capable fighter.
"Please, Ungrath?" Eicys said again, and Taras was jerked back to the present as the uruk sighed explosively.
"Right," Ungrath said, and then again, "Right." He turned to the Immies, then back to Eicys. "Yer sure yeh won' - "
"I'll be fine, Ungrath. This is important. Please?" After a long pause, Ungrath jerked his head once. Eicys' face split into a relieved smile. "Thanks," she said. "Well, we'd better get going..."
Ungrath jerked his head again. He surveyed his new charges guardedly. "This way," he grunted.
"Wait..." said Eicys, and caught his arm. "Be... be careful, okay?" She gave him a quick hug and said, "I'll see you soon. Take care of the others for me."
Ungrath stood rooted to the spot with astonishment for the third time that day. By the time he recovered, Eicys had finished hugging the others and was carefully and innocently not waiting for Taras.
The Gondorian stood awkwardly in front of Dilly, fiddling with his sword hilt. "Um," he said unhappily. "Dilly, I..."
Dilly forced a small smile, and looked down at her feet again. So for a second she was taken very much by surprise when Taras suddenly pulled her into a fierce hug. Then she wrapped her arms around him and whispered, "Take care of yourself, Taras."
"You too," he said painfully into her hair.
They stood looking at each other for an awkward moment, then Taras turned away sharply, and with a chorus of forlorn goodbyes, the other Immies were herded away down the corridor by a still rather dazed Ungrath. A stunned flatness looked out of his odd brown eyes.
She really meant it...
He halted. "Jest a minute," he told the Immies roughly. "Stay there." He hurried back the way they had come, and caught up with Taras before he turned the corner after Eicys. The Gondorian prince whirled at the sound of footsteps, his sword blurring as he whipped it out of the sheath. The point halted, almost reluctantly, a foot from Ungrath's armored chest. The orc ignored it.
"Listen, tark," he growled as he loomed over Taras. "You take care o' her, unnerstand? `Cause if anythin' happens teh her, I swear by the Eye yeh won' live teh see t'morrow."
Taras' grey eyes blazed. He lowered his sword and stepped close to Ungrath, cold fury in every line. "[iYou
," he hissed, "do not threaten me. I would not think twice about killing you now, and if Dilly and her friends do not make it safely out of this tower, you will be dead before you can even begin to worry about tomorrow. I am not so stupid as to trust you."
Ungrath growled, his fists clenching. Taras didn't move; his eyes were flat and hard as stone. They faced each other thus for an instant, then Ungrath turned and stalked back down the corridor after the others. Taras sheathed his sword and flung himself around the corner after Eicys, fuming. Orcs!

* * * * * *
Wlore prowled the echoing black corridors with one of the orc's blades in her hand and the other thrust into her belt, shrinking into the shadows whenever she heard a noise. Every muscle quivered with adrenaline. She knew the exit was on this floor, but the tower of Orthanc was as devious as its master, and its gleaming obsidian hallways were so twisted and convoluted that Wlore was by now completely lost. It didn't help that she had to keep leaping into side passages to avoid the wizard's many servants and warriors - especially when all she really wanted to do was leap out yelling war cries.
Months of servitude and dungeon time hadn't broken Wlore's spirit. They had made her mad.
She watched two goblins go past, squabbling, and hissed with impotent fury from the safety of her hiding place.
One of the orcs heard. He paused, and turned. Waving at his companion for silence, he took a few curious steps down the branching passage, and peered into the carved recess where Wlore was hiding.
There was a nasty crunching noise, and the orc sprawled backwards, dead before he hit the floor. His companion a few feet away stiffened and slowly craned his neck to look.
Out of the shadows, two blue eyes looked back at him. Something about the icy gleam of those eyes reached deep down into the base of the goblin's spine and pressed a little button marked Primal Terror.
"Oh - " said the orc, and then Wlore dove at him, both blades flashing. He managed one terrible scream before she finished him off. The Rohirric girl didn't waste any time; her dirks were barely free of the corpse before she was halfway down the hall, cursing furiously about "stupid - letting him - go for the throat first next time -"
She'd just blown her cover.
And sure enough, the furious roars and snarls of orcs attracted by the scream soon reached her ears. Within seconds she could hear their footsteps, pounding after her. Here we go, then...

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