Muse Quest - Chapter 23: War-cries

Eredolyn watched the orc with a sort of horrified fascination as he led their group up yet another flight of stairs. He was so ugly...
And yet he didn't fit. He wasn't a proper orc at all. Those eyes, for one thing... and of course his friendship with Eicys. And he was much larger than any of the other orcs, and was dressed differently, too - and Eredolyn had noticed something else that no one else seemed to: Ungrath's accent. He sounded nothing like the rest of the Isengard orcs. What he did sound like was the Dunlending servant who had brought Eredolyn her meals.
That made absolutely no sense.
Curiosity killed the cat, Eredolyn knew, but hey, things didn't look too good right now anyway.
"Um, Ungrath?"
"Mm?" he grunted without turning around.
"You're not from around here, are you?"
He stopped so abruptly Eredolyn almost collided with him, turned around, and gave her a warning glare. Eredolyn shrank. "I've always lived in Isengard," he said firmly, then turned and kept walking.
"Oh," said Eredolyn in a small voice. Liar, she thought.
"Um, so... Why are you helping us?"
Tuima made frantic motions for her to be quiet, but it didn't matter much anyway, since the orc stayed silent.
"Ungrath?" Eredolyn prodded.
"So why are you helping us?"
"Nosy liddle thing, aren't yeh?"
"You're avoiding the question."
Ungrath swung around and stared at her, obviously surprised. He seemed to be wondering whether or not to be angry, but instead he just shrugged and kept walking. Eredolyn opened her mouth again, but the orc forestalled further questions: "Eicys asked me to."
"But why are you helping Eicys?"
"She's my friend," the uruk said, and Dilly noticed his shoulders go back proudly.
"I thought orcs didn't want friends," Eredolyn said, mostly to herself.
"They don'."
Eredolyn blinked at his flat tone and thought for a minute. "But you're an orc."
"So why don't you - "
"Are all humans this nosy?" Ungrath demanded, swinging around again. "Eicys does tha', too."
"Sorry," Eredolyn said. "You've known Eicys a long time, then?"
"Morgoth," he swore. "Yer worse'n Sharkey."
"What, Saruman asks lots of questions?"
"Only teh..." He shut his mouth tight. "Look, jest shut up, can't yeh?"
"Only to who?"
He didn't answer.
"To you?"
"An' a few others," he said defensively.
"There are more like you?"
"No," he said shortly. "None like me. I didn' work."
There was a perplexed silence while Eredolyn tried to figure this out without annoying the orc any further. "Er..."
"Look," he growled, turning around and looming horribly. "Before yeh ask, I'll jest tell yeh - I ain't gonna answer. So jest shut yer mouth and keep walkin'." And he stalked away.
"Oops," Eredolyn muttered to Dilly. She nodded.
As though the tark an' the Elf weren't bad enough, Ungrath growled to himself, mostly to cover how flustered he was. What's next - one o' them Strawheads?
Everyone paused and looked curiously at Tuima. Her back was rigid and her head was cocked slightly. "Sshh," she hissed. "Hear it?"
They strained their ears, and were rewarded with a faint crashing yell, muffled by the thick stone walls.
"There's a fight going on," said the Elf, staring at nothing. She listened intently, then her eyes snapped back into focus and she looked wildly at the others. "I can hear Wlore!"
"What? How can you tell?"
"Who else would be screaming Rohirric war-cries in Orthanc?" Tuima asked impatiently.
Ungrath frowned. Rohirric... "Yer friend - she's a Strawhead?"
"A what?" Dilly asked.
"That's the Dunlending term for the Rohirrim," Eredolyn said knowledgably, and a bit suspiciously.
"Oh," said Dilly. "Yeah, Wlore's from Rohan."
"Figures," Ungrath muttered.
"Nothin'." He turned to Tuima. "Where's the fightin' at?"
"It's hard to tell with the echoes..."
"Try," the orc said flatly.
Tuima stiffened and gave Ungrath a glare that suggested she was trying to weld his eyeballs to the back of his skull. Chin raised haughtily, she pointed to her right.
"Great," Ungrath growled irritably. "Tha's th' only way out."
"Well, we'd have to go that way anyway, wouldn't we?" said Eredolyn.
Ungrath squinted. "Why?"
"To rescue Wlore."
He stared. "What, are yeh crazy? Yeh don' git into a fight in Isengard `less yeh got a death wish. Yeh jest - don't."
"What else can we do?" said Dilly, her voice tight. "We can't just let her get killed."
"Why not?"
The Immies were shocked. Ungrath seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Well, you did say it was the only way out, anyway," Eredolyn said, feeling that an explanation would probably be unsuccessful.
Dilly had a better idea. "She's our friend," she said firmly, and was rewarded by a funny glint in the uruk's eye. It disappeared almost immediately as he realized what that meant, and with it died another, brighter light, fading slowly away to leave a horrible flat hopelessness in its place.
"Right," he said, and looked down at his hands. Slowly his claws curled around the hilt of his scimitar, then he pulled it out with a jerk. The three Immies stepped back involuntarily; the weapon was at least as long as Dilly was tall.
Maybe we won't get killed after all, Tuima thought, but without much hope.
Ungrath nodded to himself, still staring at his blade. He was standing straight again, his face grim and resigned.
"Well," he said harshly. "Let's go then."

Just before they reached the fighting, Ungrath put out a heavy claw and pulled the Immies up short. "Listen," he grated. "No hero stuff, right? Jest grab yer friend and run, an' leave th' fightin' teh me. Th' exit's on yer right - there's a long hall an' then a big room an' the main door. Yeh'll prob'ly be arright once yer out in th' sunlight."
They all nodded. "Ready?" Eredolyn said, jangling with nerves. More nods. Eredolyn took a deep breath, raised her weapon, and charged.
She had learned in martial arts class once that the best way to get up your courage in a situation like this - well, not exactly like this; she sincerely doubted her sensei had been thinking of orcs when he was giving his lesson - was to yell.
So Eredolyn yelled.
The others caught the feeling and yelled, too: Tuima was shouting some sort of Elven war-cry and Dilly simply opened her mouth and screamed as they rounded the corner, and sound and terror dissolved in the instant chaos of battle.

Eredolyn was a black belt, and she and Dilly had taken fencing together and were really very good. And Tuima had been trained in the use of her longknives by the elite Wardens of Lothlorien.
They were as good as dead.
What movies and stories and such always fail to mention, Dilly realized as she narrowly avoided death for the third time in as many seconds, is that when you are hopelessly surrounded, the word "hopeless" actually does apply in some cases. Never to the heroes of course - but is that because the heroes never die or simply because the ones that do die don't get written about?
She flung up her sword and against all odds survived for another breath.
And then Ungrath was there.
With an animal roar he flung himself around the corner, scimitar a blur, and there was a sickening pause in which every person in the room, Immie and orc alike, experienced the feeling of all thought fleeing the skull to make room for the enormous weight of sheer terror.
The weight lifted from Tuima's mind just enough for her to manage a fleeting thought - Sweet Elbereth, I'm glad he's on our side - and then the battle resumed full-force, and there was no room for thought, only movement. Tuima whirled and struck and and slashed with a speed that would have amazed her old teachers but somehow never seemed to be quite fast enough. The world seemed to be rushing past, buffeting her in its slipstream. She ducked, leapt back, dodged certain death by a scant centimeter... An orc sliced her shallowly across the arm, sending her off-balance, and the creatures dove at her, howling. By sheer luck she caught one across the throat; he screamed and staggered into his comrade, but there were so many more, and Tuima slashed uselessly at them as she fought to get back into the rhythm of battle - she was falling, they were almost on top of her -
Three orcs landed heavily on the Elf. She screwed up her eyes -
And realized they were dead. Ungrath had his back to her and was driving off the others with huge sweeping blows that brought down orcs like sheaves of corn. Tuima struggled out from under the bodies and plunged back into the fight, wisely keeping close to Ungrath. If they survived this, it would be because of him.
The uruk hacked a swath through the room, Tuima close behind him to finish off the wounded and prevent anyone from sneaking up on him. When they neared Wlore, Tuima darted through the press of bodies to stand back-to-back with the Eorling. Wlore was swaying with exhaustion and her face was flecked with blood, red and black. Her teeth were bared in a fierce grin and her eyes shone with battle-fury. Rohirric war-cries rose high and defiant over the din.
"Wlore?" Tuima panted. The girl nodded. "Exit's there... on your... left." Tuima skewered an orc and winced horribly. "Run... Follow Ungrath."
"Who?" Wlore gasped as she slashed at a goblin's neck.
Crack. "The orc."
"On... our side." Stab, kick. "Big one."
"Are you crazy?" Wlore demanded, dodging a thrust. "Orcs... aren't on..." clang "our..." There was a horrible wet crunching noise, and the two orcs that she was battling fell dead, minus a head and... a half. Wlore gagged. Ungrath nodded to her and swung his scimitar in a rapid pattern that left three orcs stabbed, gutted, and headless, respectively.
"Come on!" he roared over the scream of battle, and began cutting his way to the exit. Orcs clawed frantically at one another, trying to get out of his way, but none of them managed it.
"...Forget I said anything," Wlore panted, face pale. "Whew, I'd like to see the fighter that could stand up to him."
"I wouldn't," Tuima said fervently as she and Wlore ran in Ungrath's wake.
"Where's the others?" Wlore gasped, parrying a thrust.
Tuima looked around wildly. "There!" she said, pointing with one knife. And then -
"Dilly!" Tuima shrieked.
Up until now they had been fighting mainly the smaller orcs, most of the big Uruk-hai having left Isengard some time ago to intercept the Fellowship. But apparently the fighting had attracted some of the uruks still left, because one of them had just broken Dilly's sword in two, and was now swinging his weapon down for the killing blow.

* * * * * * * * *

Eicys and Taras hurried through the dark labyrinth of Isengard's dungeons, weapons at the ready.
"Haven't we been past here already?" Taras hissed, swinging his torch around to examine yet another row of empty cells.
"No, for the fifth time. And before you ask for the sixth time, no. I do have some idea of what I'm doing, you know."
Taras nodded, abashed, but he kept glancing around impatiently.
Eicys was humming nervously under her breath: The Phantom of the Opera. "...Is there, inside your mind..." she sang.
"What's inside my mind?" Taras asked.
"The Phantom!"
"Actually, I think it's that song," he said pointedly.
"Fine," Eicys sulked. They hurried on.
Abruptly Taras stopped. "Is that inside my mind?" he asked. Strains of eerie music echoed down the corridor, sounding vaguely like bells. Eicys listened for a few bars, her lips moving along with the music.
"That's Phantom! It's Cebu!" she exclaimed.
"Wait - Your sister is...?"
"Of course not," Eicys said, annoyed. "That's her playing!"
"How do you know it isn't orcs? It sounds nothing like any music I've ever heard."
"Yeah, `cause Middle-earth doesn't even have opera, let alone a Phantom of one! Come on - follow that music!" She took off running down the corridor, Taras close behind.
Then they rounded a corner and collided head-on with an orc.
The stunted creature stumbled a few steps, growling - and caught sight of Taras. His claws scrabbled for his sword.
Taras lunged. Fast as a striking snake, he smashed a fist into the orc's jaw, at the same time seizing his enemy's sword hilt. The orc staggered backwards, leaving its weapon in Taras' grip. Without even a pause, the Gondorian slammed the blade forward again, running it up to the hilt in the creature's stomach.
The whole brief process made a noise like ssschh-hhgkugkh, followed by a horrible gurgling scream, another khgukkh, and silence.
And then a thump as Eicys sat down hard and tried to compose herself.
"Are you all right?" Taras asked.
"Sure, yeah, fine," Eicys said in a slightly hysterical voice. She stared avidly at the ceiling and concentrated on keeping her latest meal where it belonged.
"Need help?" Taras asked, offering a hand.
"Oulgh, no. Not from you," Eicys said, scooting away. Taras' fingers dripped oily black blood.
"Oh," he said, embarassed. "Sorry." He scrubbed his hands on his pants and put them out again. Eicys grasped them, shuddered, and scrambled to her feet before hurriedly pulling Taras down the corridor towards the sound of Phantom of the Opera.

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