Muse Quest - Chapter 24: Meetings and Farewells
Warning: This chapter contains violent images. Skim the last section if you are squeamish.
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Chapter 24: Meetings and Farewells
Dilly swung wildly with the shattered stub of her sword as the uruk's blade came rushing toward her face. She felt her weapon catch his with a jarring metallic shudder, then -
Dilly screamed and staggered sideways, dropping her broken weapon, both hands clutching at her shoulder. Gouts of blood poured between her fingers, spurting in time with her shocked and ragged breathing. She stared dumbly into the orc's evil face as he raised his weapon again...
Eredolyn came cannoning out of nowhere, a furious flurry of limbs and sword and velvet. Crunch. Sword forgotten, the black-belt slammed the heel of her hand straight into the uruk's flat ugly nose. He reeled backwards as Eredolyn grabbed her friend and pelted towards the exit, Dilly stumbling just behind.
"Come on!" roared Ungrath, ripping his way through the melee. The two girls darted behind him and out into the corridor, where they were joined by Tuima and Wlore, both panting and filthy.
"Oh, no," Tuima gasped out, hurrying to help Eredolyn support their injured friend. Dilly's face was a stark, painful white, and the flecks of red and black blood stood out vividly on her skin.
"Let go," she gasped, struggling out of their grip. "I'm fine!" She took two steps, staggered, and grabbed Wlore's sleeve on the way down. "Okay, maybe not," Dilly admitted tightly. "Help me up. Where's Ungrath?"
As if in answer, the orc came barelling down the corridor toward them. "Hurry!" he yelled. "They've gone fer help, we gotta git out now!"
"Dilly's hurt!" Tuima yelled back. Ungrath looked at the dark-haired girl, who was grimacing horribly, pressing a fist against her mouth to keep from screaming. Then without preamble he grabbed Dilly around the waist and slung her against his shoulder, supporting her with one massive arm. "Now move!" he growled.
"Put me down!" Dilly hissed through tightly gritted teeth. And then -
The Immies skidded to a dead standstill, the rich echoes of that voice rolling over them. Very slowly, they turned around.
Saruman was standing in the corridor.
The wizard leaned on his staff, his expression darkly amused. But Tuima's sharp eyes noticed that he blinked rather too often, and was using his staff more as a prop than a threat. Through the haze of terror, she felt a twinge of satisfaction: her sleeping draught had obviously had some effect.
Next to her, Wlore's knuckles tightened around her weapons. Her body was tense with hatred. Tuima surreptitiously gripped the back of the Eorling's tunic and braced herself.
"My young friends," Saruman said, his voice rich and smooth. He cast his eyes over them almost sorrowfully. Eredolyn shuddered. "What can you be thinking of, to - "
He stopped abruptly, and even the echoes of his voice seemed to be suddenly cut off. He was looking at Ungrath.
The uruk stumbled back a step, his eyes wide. He brought up his scimitar, slowly, and pointed it at the wizard. "Stay back!" he rasped.
* * * * * *
Euterpe sighed. "Not that I don't appreciate the music, dear," she told Cebu, "but it is rather... dark... for my mood today. Perhaps something a bit more cheerful?"
"I don't feel cheerful," Cebu said miserably.
"You are thinking of your sister again."
Cebu scowled at the floor. "If I just knew she was all right..."
"You know that Saruman has nothing but lies at the core of that voice." The Muse sighed. "It really is a shame. What my sisters and I couldn't do with that kind of talent..."
"You aren't thinking about helping him after all?" Cebu asked sharply.
"Of course not." Euterpe sounded indignant. "We journeyed to this world to help Lady Coralie, not her greatest enemy."
Cebu sighed and resumed her aria on the spoon. "I just wish we could get out of here. Then you could go inspire Coralie to write, and I could go find Eicys."
"Wish granted!" Eicys said just outside her door.
Cebu shrieked, her spoon clattering on the floor. She ignored it. "Eicys?"
"Hold on, we're here to get you out." There was a jangling and then a click.
Cebu didn't waste any time: she banged straight through the now-unlocked door, almost squashing Taras, and engulfed her little sister in a huge hug. "Eicys!" she cried. Eicys hugged her right back, an enormous grin showing through Cebu's bush of red curls. Taras and Euterpe watched from a little distance, smiling, though Taras' seemed a bit forced. His gray eyes were distant and over-bright, and you could almost see his own little sister reflected in them. He scrubbed the back of one hand over his face and managed a real smile in time to greet Cebu as she resurfaced.
He needn't have bothered: both Eicys and Cebu were looking a little soggy. But both of them were laughing delightedly, in between sniffles, and they refused to let go of each other. Sporadically one would glance at the other, she would look back, and there would be another squeal and a hug.
"How did you find - " "Where have you - " "Ohmigosh, I can't believe - " they stammered. There was another bout of hugging.
Eicys pulled away, wiping mud and paint off her cheeks along with tears. "Cebu, we're getting out of here. Right now. We've got to hurry, the others are waiting..."
"Wait," Cebu said. She pulled Euterpe forward. "This is Euterpe. She's one of Coralie's Muses!"
"Actually," the Muse began, but Cebu talked over her.
"Can she come with us?"
"Er, of course," said Eicys, giving Euterpe a funny look. "But we have to leave now."
"I'm afraid I will not be coming," the Muse said.
Everyone looked at her. "Huh?" said Cebu.
"My sisters and I have journeyed here to inspire the Lady Coralie," Euterpe said patiently. "The Lady is currently in prison in these very dungeons. My place is with her. So if I might be so bold as to ask for your keys?"
Eicys held them out dumbly. "But... um, shouldn't we come with you if you're going to rescue Coralie?"
"I am not here to rescue Coralie," the muse said, tucking the keys into her Grecian-style tunic. "I am here to inspire her. I doubt if I can do it without the aid of my sisters, but I will try." She looked solemn. "I will not see you again. However, if you find the other eight, send them to this place with all speed. The fate of the story depends on it." She smiled sadly and turned in a swirl of robes.
Several steps down the corridor, she stopped and turned around. "Taras of Dol Amroth," she said.
Taras looked startled. "Er... Yes?"
"Know that your sister is safe," she said kindly. "It is not in the story of the Lady Lothiriel that she should be wed to a traitor from the South."
Taras stumbled back a step, staring at her. "How - how did you...?" he choked.
Euterpe smiled. "I am a Muse. We concern ourselves with the tales of others. And now there is one tale which needs our great attention. You have a duty laid on you, all of you and your companions. The Muses must be gathered. The story must continue." Her smile was suddenly broad and happy. "And I believe you will weave your own tales the while." She nodded to Cebu. "Farewell."
And she turned, and was gone.
There was a slightly stunned silence.
"Ooo-kaay, that was weird," said Eicys.
The three of them stood there a moment more, watching the corridor down which Euterpe had left. "Well," Eicys said at last. "That's that. Shall we go?"
"Eicys, you have no sense of the dramatic," Cebu complained as they turned and hurried back up the corridor.
Eicys grinned. "That's why you love me, right?"
Cebu tried to scowl and couldn't. She laughed instead and pulled her sister into a final hug. The two of them tromped happily side by side, babbling merrily to each other - and both of them were rather pointedly absorbed in the conversation, to give Taras time to recover.
The Gondorian prince was still standing motionless, trying to herd his thoughts back into order. He crushed down hard on the bubble of hope swelling in him. It couldn't be true. He knew nothing about this Euterpe. You can't trust just anyone, he knew. Oh, Valar, he knew.
Do what he might, the hope swelled ecstatically inside him. Safe. She's safe. He wiped his eyes fiercely, swallowed the rest of his tears, and hurried after the two sisters. First things first. They had to get out of here.
* * * * * *
Ungrath's enormous scimitar was still pointed steadily at the wizard, but there was a look of panic in his eyes.
Saruman, black gaze never leaving his creation, gestured slightly with one hand. Behind him rose a veritable wall of orcs. The wizard was a striking contrast, gleaming like an icy flame in front of his filthy horde. He still wore that cold, mocking smile. "Fools," he murmured. "It was ...hopeless from... the beginning." Wizened hands clutched at his staff. "Why do you continue to..." He blinked rapidly. "Continue to... fight... against your... fate?"
Eredolyn writhed. Tuima had her hands over her ears and was muttering frantically to herself. Wlore screwed up her face in a sort of miserable fury. "Why does he have to draw it out like that?" she hissed, fists clenched.
"You are to be... pitied," Saruman continued inexorably, his voice a smooth dark tide. It rolled blackly over their minds. "But it was... your own... folly that... drove ... you..."
The Immies unstopped their ears cautiously. Everyone stared blankly at the limp white heap on the floor that was the wizard.
"Um... did that just happen?" Eredolyn asked.
But as she spoke, a clawlike hand reached out and gripped its fallen staff. Saruman pulled himself to his feet, his eyes glittering with malice from beneath drooping lids. He didn't waste breath on persuasion this time.
Flinging out his hand, the wizard gasped, "After them!"
The hovering tide of orcs howled with evil glee and poured around their master like a flood around a boulder, choking the corridor with their foul bodies.
Ungrath snapped to his senses. "Run!" he roared, and swept the Immies before him, pounding in a desperate race for the exit.
Dilly clenched her fists so tightly that her nails left red crescent marks against her palms. Blood poured down her arm, seeping between her fingers. Don't scream, she ordered herself through a jagged veil of pain. Don't scream, don't scream, and for heaven's sake don't do anything stupid like -
Her shoulder jarred against Ungrath's breastplate, and with a tiny gasp, Dilly's eyes rolled back and she fainted.
Ungrath looked down at the limp figure in his arms and cursed. Just a few yards ahead was the block of sunlight that was the exit, and at the far end of the corridor the orcs bore down on them in a rushing wave of malice. And somewhere in the tower, somewhere behind that wave, was Eicys...
The uruk gritted his teeth. He should have known; it was too good to be true. Stupid to hope -
"Wait!" he called. Eredolyn and Wlore looked around at him. "Here," he said, and thrust the now semi-conscious Dilly at them. "Get outta here," he growled, as they caught their friend awkwardly. They stared at him, bewildered.
"I said go!" he snarled.
"Come on, Ere!" Tuima cried, tugging at her. "We're almost out!"
Eredolyn turned and ran, with Ungrath pounding just behind her. And then the sunlight burst over them like a blinding curtain, and they were out, and stumbling down the steps with Dilly supported between them...
Ungrath wasn't there.
Eredolyn skidded to a stop. "Ungrath!" she yelled. Then she saw him standing at the top of the stairs, framed in the tower doorway. Sunlight blazed over his back, but his face was to the shadow.
"Ungrath, what are you doing?" Eredolyn screamed. "Come on!"
Ungrath closed his eyes briefly and turned around to face them. "Yeh know we can't escape," he said wearily. Eredolyn gaped, but Tuima looked away. She had expected as much.
Ungrath took a deep breath. "Someone has teh stop `em," he said.
Eredolyn looked appalled.
"By yourself?" she asked.
He regarded her steadily, his dark brown eyes resigned. Eredolyn closed her mouth and nodded slowly.
"Good luck," she said, and felt completely rotten. The uruk was obviously going to die, and she said good luck? But what could you say?
"You don't have to do this," she blurted. Tuima and Wlore glanced at each other. But Ungrath only laughed mirthlessly.
"I didn' expect teh get outta this alive, anyhow." The screeches and howls of the orcs drew closer. "Tell..." His mouth tightened. "Tell Eicys g'bye fer me, will yeh?"
He turned his back on them, planted his feet wide, and raised his scimitar. The girls watched, frozen and breathless. "Go!" Ungrath snarled over his shoulder as the first orc came hurtling towards him. He hacked it almost in two with a single blow, but dozens more were pouring into its place. "Go!" he roared, and met the wave of orcs head-on in a cacophany of screams and metal.
The Immies turned and ran, the sound of fighting just behind drowning out even their hoarse, horrified breathing.
* * * * * *
Saruman watched with cold satisfaction as his creation hacked ruthlessly at the horde of orcs. He was truly an incredible fighter, and the orcs were no great loss. Orcs were always expendable.
Ungrath was expendable, too - but in rather a different way.
The wizard gripped his staff, swaying where he stood. He turned to a goblin captain and said, "I want him dead. But keep the body. I will be in my chambers." And, struggling against the inviting press of sleep, Saruman turned his back on his failed experiment and made his way back into the black heart of his tower.
* * * * * *
Ungrath's breath sobbed harshly through his lungs. Parry, chop, thrust, dodge, stab... The sound of his butchery was an endless nightmare reel of screams, howls, swarming mottled bodies and glinting weapons, hair and skin and claws and fangs and the scarlet bursts of pain exploding in his skull. His left arm hung uselessly; his armor was as tattered as old rags.
Crunch of bone and clang of metal, death scream, war cry, rasp of desperate breath. Rivers of warm black blood: oily, slippery, corrosive, copper-smelling. Hot, filthy, stinging, tired... Hack, thrust, pull free, whirl, chop, slash - No breath for screaming, but he was screaming anyway, or maybe it was the others... screaming...
Eicys. Come soon...
The orcs were hanging back, now, frightened. Almost half of them had been killed. Still so many...
Another wave of fighters broke over him, and thought was drowned in the craze of battle. The shrieks of the dying and wounded echoed from the walls, battering at his ears; white flames of agony lanced across his vision at each new wound. The wave crested, broke, scattered in screaming pieces around his feet. Ungrath staggered. A lone orc screeched with delight and brought up his sword; Ungrath swept it aside and killed him in one brutal movement. He pulled himself upright and hefted his scimitar, glaring at the much lessened crowd of orcs.
They hesitated, then another group of them attacked, but this one was smaller, and by the time the last orc - the captain - fell, the others had fled. Ungrath swayed as he looked dazedly across the empty hall...
Not quite empty. "Eicys!" he cried hoarsely, and swayed again.
"Ungrath!" She was running towards him. "Ungrath - no!"
Because the pain that he had managed to ignore so far rushed through him, and with a low cry, Ungrath's legs finally folded and he collapsed. "No!" Eicys cried, and she was kneeling at his side, wrenching off her helmet. Gold hair cascaded loose past her shoulders. "Ungrath!"
Her hands fluttered frantically over his rent breastplate, trying to stop the flow of blood. "What happened?" she asked. "Where's the others?"
"Out," he rasped. "I was holdin' it for yeh..." He stopped, gasping for breath. Black orc-blood pulsed from his wounds, drenching Eicys' hands to the wrists. She pulled them back, horrified at the inky liquid.
He closed his eyes; he didn't want to see the disgust cross her face. But he felt her hands on him again, tugging at his shoulder. He winced and opened his eyes, surprised at the effort it took. She was trying to get his breastplate off, fumbling desperately with the straps. "Taras, help me!"
Taras stepped forward, hesitated, then knelt swiftly next to Eicys. He pulled the battered metal off, and Ungrath's body arched with agony. Taras looked at the gashes covering the orc's torso, glanced up at Eicys, and shook his head. He'd been in battles before; he knew what wounds like that meant. This orc was good as dead.
She ignored him and strained to lift her friend. "Come on!" she almost screamed. "Help me - we've got to get him outside!"
"Eicys..." Cebu said carefully.
"No!" Eicys cried, but Ungrath caught her hand.
"S' all right," he gasped. "Don' matter now. I'm done." His big chest heaved roughly. "Eicys..."
"No," she moaned. Taras stood up and backed away respectfully. "No!" she screamed after him, then whirled back to Ungrath. "You'll be fine," she said fiercely, holding his hand like a lifeline.
He shook his head, and Eicys felt her heart constrict. The orc's dark brown eyes were glassy with pain, but his ugly face twisted into a reassuring smile. Eicys burst into tears.
Ungrath blinked slowly, the breath catching ragged and bloody in his throat. "Eicys," he managed. He lifted one heavy claw and finally, finally, let himself touch her face, trace the dirty tracks of tears on her cheeks. "Don' cry." She looked so beautiful with her gold hair tumbled around her face, and her familiar blue eyes bright with tears. "Don' cry," he murmured again.
Eicys valiantly smudged tears out of her eyes but they still poured down her cheeks, sliding painfully along her throat. "Why did you do it?" she sobbed.
"Yer my friend," he said simply. "Th' on'y one who..." He doubled up with coughing: it was a horrible rattling sound. A trace of blood blackened his mouth. "I'll miss yeh, Eicys," he said, his bright brown eyes already clouding over. He smiled faintly. "My friend." Then he closed his eyes with a sigh, and his hand fell limp, and Ungrath was gone.
"No!" Eicys screamed. "Ungrath - no!" She shook him desperately, and the big ugly head lolled on her arm. Her chest and arms were soaked with black blood; she shuddered, shuddered again, and then buried her face against his chest and shook with sobs.