Muse Quest - Chapter 27: Woes, Wargs, and Wlore
DISCLAIMER: (a)Alas, the Immies do not own Middle Earth. Cruel, cruel fate.
(b)This chapter is very different from the original Thread-scene, and we would like to reassure everyone that Linsul has not been cut! She will make a quite dramatic appearance a few chapters hence.
(c) Much bowing and waving of hats to Terry Pratchett, the latchet of whose exploding seven-league boots I am not worthy to unloose, for a number of pirated lines. If anyone can spot them they get extra chocolate.
On with the show.
Taras had fallen behind a bit, bowing to Tuima's Elven eyesight to guide them through the gloom. Nobody spoke: everyone was tense and jumpy. When Ungrath stumbled slightly, catching himself on the wall, all the Immies whipped around so quickly that the orc was almost skewered by three different weapons.
"Sorry," he muttered, his voice echoing harshly off the obsidian walls.
Tuima pressed her lips together and crept on through the blackness. Ungrath followed, still wincing a bit from the sudden pain that had flashed through him. This was the fifth time so far... He caught at a loose shoulder-plate that was making a bid for freedom, and shoved it irritably back into place. Nothing seemed to fit him anymore.
The noise and the stench were increasing: Cebu wrinkled her nose, wondering whether a smell alone was capable of dissolving teeth. This one seemed to be making a valiant attempt at it. Tarry smoke mixed with the reek of orcs and wargs, laced with the smell of blood and dirt and sweat from the Immies themselves.
Gross, the redhead thought, pulling a face in the darkness and planning a week-long shower when she got home, involving several bottles of shampoo, two or three tubes of toothpaste, and whole gallons of conditioner. Cebu's flaming-red curls were unruly at the best of times, but right now they seemed to have developed a life of their own, and stood out around her head like... like an alive, red, curly thing. Cebu sighed - her creativity was already stretched to the limits populating the shadows with orcs and uruks and wargs and crebain and wizards and -
Look, she told her imagination firmly, If this is how you're going to behave, I won't bring you again.
The Immies walked on, Tuima's torch sputtering and smoking in the lead. And then suddenly it wasn't. The Elf had dropped it quietly on the floor and stamped out the flame. "Get back!" she hissed at the others as the fire disappeared. "Orcs!"
Fumbling and tripping in the blackness, the Immies hurried toward a side passage several feet back. They huddled together against a wall, listening as the jeering voices of the orcs came closer, and closer... Cebu heard the faintest of movements beside her and just barely managed to make out Taras, very carefully laying Dilly on the floor.
Then he drew his sword, and stepped out into the corridor.
What happened next was almost too quick to follow. Taras' blade, an arc of silver and red in the orcs' torchlight, slashed through the first two in rapid succession, whipped free of a third which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, and then blurred into near-invisibility as he whirled and slammed it hilt-deep into the orc rushing up behind him.
The sound of the last orc sliding to the floor was very loud in the shocked silence. Cebu looked rather ill. Taras bent down, wiped his blade on an orc, resheathed it, and walked back to Dilly. He picked her up gently. Then he turned around without looking at anyone, flipped an orc out of the way with his toe, and kept walking down the way they had been headed.
The Immies gaped after him.
"He's very good, isn't he?" Eicys managed after a bit. There was a chorus of slightly stunned nods. Tuima picked up the orcs' fallen torch, looked around at the others, and then started meekly after Taras. The Immies followed, but they tended to give the Gondorian a rather wide berth after that.
All except for Cebu, who, after she was finally confident that she would not be sick if she opened her mouth again, sidled up to him and demanded in a whisper, "How did you do that?"
He looked around at her and shrugged. "There is not much to do in a cell," he said. "I practice a lot." His voice was the same flat, hard grey as his eyes. He shifted his hold on Dilly, very carefully, and walked on.
"Oh," said Cebu. She hurried back to walk with her sister, and did not say anything else for a long while. But as they walked, the smell and sound of the warg-pens was growing, until at last the tunnel opened up into a large room. The left-hand wall and ceiling were the same, but on their right, there was a sheer drop into a smoky, reeking pit that echoed with the wolfish baying of the orcs' mounts.
Cebu noticed that the blonde girl - Wlore, that was her name - had let out a little sigh when the tunnel opened, and her shoulders had sagged slightly with relief. Cebu couldn't know it, but the Eorling's greatest fear - practically her only fear - was of enclosed spaces. It was probably a racial characteristic in any case, but for Wlore it had been honed to a stark, choking horror by her lengthy stretches in Saruman's dungeons. She took a deep breath and immediately regretted it. This place didn't just stink, it - it fugged. You could probably cut cubes out of the air and sell them for cheap building material.
"So," said Wlore, in between gags. "Now what?"
"Er," said Tuima, holding the torch aloft. "It's got to be around here somewhere."
"Probably not," Eicys said. "If there was an outlet to fresh air around here, it wouldn't smell this bad."
"Hah," said Wlore. "These are wargs we're talking about."
"We had better just stay on this path, then," Tuima said uncertainly.
"No," said Eredolyn, who had taken several strides ahead. "It just ends in a wall up here, look."
The Immies eyed the dead end unhappily. "So where do we go?" Cebu asked.
Ungrath raised his head, a dazed, sick look lingering in his eyes. "Down," he grunted, and dropped his head again.
"Down?" Cebu echoed, peering over the edge. "Uh... how?"
"There's ladders," he said.
"And then where do we go?" asked Tuima.
Ungrath shrugged, and his shoulder plate slid down around his elbow. "Dunno," he growled, pushing the loose armor back into place. "Never ridden." He leaned against the wall for support, looking pale. "I s'pose the wargs'd know, though," he finished, and closed his eyes.
"Oh, yes, why don't we just ask them then?" Wlore said caustically.
Eredolyn blinked. "Hey... why don't we?" Wlore gave her a Look. "No, I'm serious!" said Eredolyn. "Wargs have a language, don't they? It was in The Hobbit." "What
"Whatwas in a hobbit?" Tuima asked, sounding apprehensive.
"Um... no, that's not what I... um. But they do have a language, right?" Tuima nodded. "Well then!" Eredolyn said triumphantly.
Eicys looked skeptical. "But does anyone here actually speak warg?"
The Immies looked at each other. Tuima looked at the floor. The others noticed this, and stared. "...You speak warg?" Cebu asked. "Really?"
"A few words," Tuima muttered.
"So can you ask them the way out?"
The Elf looked more awkward than they'd ever seen her. "Er... no. I, um, er. Just learned the, er, insults. Er."
Eredolyn looked intrigued. "Really? Like what?"
"This is hardly the time," Tuima said stiffly.
"So what do we do then?" Eicys asked.
"Well," Wlore said slowly, with a touch of evil glee. "I guess we ought to ...ask... the wargs."
"What?" asked Cebu.
"You can all ride, right?" asked Wlore, already swinging herself over the edge of the drop onto a rickety ladder.
Taras and Tuima nodded. Eicys shrugged a little nervously.
Eredolyn and Cebu looked at each other. "Uh... why?" Cebu asked.
Wlore disappeared into the reeking smoke, but her voice floated back up to them. They could hear her grinning. "Because we're getting out of here the fast way," she said.
Cebu looked like someone who'd just seen the light at the end of the tunnel. "Oh, good," she said. Then she put two and two together, and her expression changed to that of someone who had just realized that the light at the end of the tunnel was actually the headlights of the oncoming train.
"Ohhh, no," she said firmly. "Nuh-uh. No way am I riding a warg. No chance."
"No choice," said Tuima. "Let's go." She put one hand on the edge and almost vaulted onto the ladder, the light of her torch fading rapidly as she climbed down. One by one, the Immies followed her. There was some difficulty getting Dilly down, especially as Taras refused to let go of her, but they managed it eventually, until only Cebu was left at the top of the ladder, looking glum. She followed slowly and unhappily: she didn't like big dogs at the best of times, and her last experience with horses hadn't gone well at all. The prospect of riding on a combination of the two was not a pleasant one, especially when you added in the ugliness, the smell, the malicious intelligence, and the penchant for ripping out throats.
Oh, why did I have to think of that last one? Cebu moaned inwardly as she reached the bottom and joined the huddle of Immies who were staring doubtfully back at the wall they'd just climbed down. When Cebu looked at it, her eyes went wide. The wargs were stabled in the wall, beneath the path that the Immies had stood on moments ago. Ladders leaned between the stall doors, and hideous slavering heads lunged at the barriers, trying to get to the unfamiliar-smelling creatures outside.
Wlore was about to unlatch one. Cebu, caught between the desires to scream, bolt, yell furious warnings at Wlore, and not appear a total coward, ended up just standing very still and listening bemusedly to the ringing in her ears. Wlore paused, her hand on the latch. "Tuima," she said. "Is there any rope?"
Tuima looked around, spotted a tangled heap of cord in one corner, and passed it to Wlore. "Good," said the Rohir. "This one's still got a saddle on," - Wlore paused to scowl her disgust at orkish wargmanship - "but she hasn't got a bridle, so this might be tricky. Do you know how to throw a lasso?"
"I've seen it done," said Tuima.
To Cebu's dismay, Wlore seemed to regard this as sufficient.
"Good," she said. "Get it around her neck as she's coming out, then come around to her hindquarters quick as you can. Toss your end to me as soon as I'm on. Ready? Go!"
She smashed the lock with the hilt of her blade and threw the stall door wide, leaping sideways as she did. The warg rushed out, and a coil of rope settled around its neck at the same time that Wlore threw herself neatly onto its back. The creature spun, trying to seize the new rider's leg, and was brought up short by the tightening cord around its throat. It spun back around, and Tuima was suddenly confronted with teeth. Somehow, the rest of the warg faded into insignificance when one was faced with enormous yellowing fangs dripping ropes of slippery drool. Black lips wrinkled backwards, pulling heavy jaws open into a jagged, reeking cavern...
"Tuima!" Wlore yelled. The Elf's eyes snapped back into focus and she threw her end of the rope towards Wlore.
The warg's head snapped up and back, and it caught the flying rope in its teeth.
There was a small, unpleasant moment in which Tuima seemed to shrink in on herself, as though every cell in her body had just said quietly, "Oh, dear..."
The warg grinned. This is not a sight for the faint of heart. Everyone knew what was going to happen next, and yet, somehow, no one could move to do anything about it. The warg gathered itself together and -
Wlore launched herself forward over the creature's neck, seized one of its ears, and hauled sideways and back, forcing its head towards her knee. Then she kicked it, hard, in the joint where its back legs met the stomach. The warg let out a sound that could only be described as a shriek, hurled itself forward, staggered as its legs inadvertently followed its corkscrewed head... and was suddenly running in a tight, useless circle, as Wlore tightened her grip on its ear and spurred it on ruthlessly.
"Get... the rope!" she panted through clenched teeth. Her long pale hair whirred behind as the warg spun in impotent fury. Eicys and Eredolyn both scrambled for the mangled coil, but Tuima snatched it out of their hands, tied a hasty knot, and hurled it over the warg's neck once more.
The only problem was, Wlore's arm was in the way. She yelled as the noose tightened, pinning her elbow against the creature's throat. Then, the muscles in her thin arms knotted with strain, she gritted out, "Pull when I say!"
"Are you crazy?" Eicys demanded.
"Now!" yelled Wlore as she released her grip and snaked her arm free. Tuima yanked, and the choking warg turned toward her again, looking dizzy. "Throw it, throw it!" Wlore screamed, and Tuima wadded the rest of the rope together and flung it at her.
Suddenly, Wlore was in complete control. The warg's head arced backwards as Wlore skillfully passed the end of the rope around its throat once more, forming a crude pair of reins. "Now," she gritted, "We'll see who's boss."
Two minutes later, after a punishing series of circles and figure eights, the warg stood docile and swaying, tied firmly to its stable door. Wlore had put Tuima on its back, "just in case," and was fitting it with an outlandish bridle-like contraption that appeared to make complete sense to her. "Once you look at the differences in the jaw, you can figure it out pretty quickly," she told Eredolyn, who looked on in horrified fascination in case the Rohir lost a hand.
"There," said Wlore finally, sounding satisfied. "Good girl." She gave the warg's neck a slap. "Right then," she said, as the warg snapped half-heartedly at her fingers. "How many more do we need?"
The Immies gaped.
"Er... two or three," said Eicys at last, weakly. "We'll double up."
Wlore took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and marched toward another stall. But this time Ungrath stepped forward.
"Er, could I try somethin'?" he asked. "On'y I've seen th' other - the, uh... I've seen orcs ridin' before, an' I thought..."
Wlore eyed him narrowly, then seemed to decide he was probably capable of handling a warg, and shrugged. "You take this one, then," she said. "I'll take that one there." She paused at the stall door. "Eredolyn, would you take Tuima's place? I need her with the rope."
Eredolyn looked at Tuima, who was looking tense but - typical Elf, Eredolyn thought irritably - throroughly graceful and controlled in the warg's oddly-shaped saddle. The brute was becoming irritable again as its dizziness - and Wlore's presence - faded from its small memory, and was straining its head around in the hopes of having Elf-legs for dinner.
"Um, why does someone need to take Tuima's place?"
"Because it's easiest to control a hor - a warg - when mounted, of course," said Wlore. "And I feel better knowing - "
The Immies spun. Ungrath had opened the stall door, and, as the warg inside came leaping out, had brained it straight between the eyes with a metal pole that had been leaning against the wall. The warg staggered, looking rather cross-eyed. Ungrath eyed it appraisingly, then hit it again. The warg swayed, and with a thunderous boom collapsed full-length at his feet.
The orc nodded his satisfaction. "Now yeh jest put the saddle an' stuff on, an' when he wakes up in a few minutes he'll know better'n t' mess with yeh," he explained.
"Ah," Tuima said faintly. "Very sensible."
Eicys and Cebu were stifling giggles at Wlore's expression: she seemed torn between horror, indignation, and admiration, and her face stuttered between the three until she could go off into the corner where the warg's tack was heaped and lug back a heavy saddle and another of the complicated bridles, muttering to herself. She slung the saddle onto the unconscious warg and enlisted Ungrath's help in getting the straps underneath its heavy bulk. He managed to lift the warg a few inches without much difficulty, but almost dropped it on Wlore's arm as she passed the girth through the gap. She jumped backwards and glared.
"Sorry," Ungrath gasped, bent double with pain. He swallowed queasily, shrugged away an anxiously hovering Eicys, and bent over the warg again. It twitched and growled, but Wlore had the girth tightly fastened and was finishing the last buckles on the bridle when it woke up fully.
It pulled itself upright and snarled. Ungrath snarled back. The warg promptly sat down on the floor like a hugely oversized dog, whining faintly.
"I like that method," said Eicys. Ungrath looked embarassed.
Wlore said grudgingly, "Well, it wouldn't work on horses, but I suppose for wargs it's not so bad." But she couldn't quite suppress a grin. "Right, then," she said, still struggling not to smile. "Third warg." She reached for the latch.
"Hey!" a horrible voice shouted from above. "What d'ye think yer doin'?"
Everyone looked up. A party of orcs was standing on the path just above the stables, and the leader was pointing a loaded crossbow straight at Wlore.
The shieldmaiden didn't even hesitate. She threw the stall door wide and leapt out of the way. Snarling hidously, the warg inside came charging out - and pitched to a stop, stone dead with a crossbow bolt in its neck.
The other wargs, smelling blood, came alive. The stables echoed with their baying cries.
"Mount up!" Wlore yelled. "Hurry!"
The Immies scrambled aboard the two already saddled wargs, too rushed even to be properly wary of their snapping teeth. Tuima helped Taras up behind her, propping Dilly between them, and Ungrath swung a protesting Eicys onto his cowed mount and pulled himself up behind.
Cebu and Eredolyn, both unfamiliar with riding, hesitated. The orcs were swarming down the ladders toward them, and on the path above their leader was winching back his crossbow to reload. And behind -
"What are you doing?" Cebu wailed, as Wlore used the hilt of her dirk to smash lock after lock on the wargs' stall doors. She snatched up the rest of the rope and stood back, knotting it feverishly as, with triumphant howls, the enormous wolves erupted from their confinement and leapt into the open.
Tuima slashed through the rope tying her warg, and wheeled it around sharply. "Let's go!" she shouted above the din. Ungrath kicked his after her. Cebu and Eredolyn clutched at each other as wargs bounded past them, joining the gruesome feast on their dead comrade.
"Come on!" came Wlore's voice, and the Eorling pulled up short in front of them. She was riding bareback, and was controlling her mount with knees alone as she deftly knotted the length of rope into an odd series of loops. "Get on!" she cried, leaning forward. She seized a handful of bristly mane and yanked the warg's head around long enough to settle the rope contraption over its muzzle. It snapped at her, but she had already pulled back triumphantly, a crude pair of reins in her hands and a makeshift halter settled firmly over her mount's head. She reached down and hauled Cebu up behind her; Eredolyn scrambled frantically to get aboard as well, clutching at the warg's coarse hair as it sidled and snarled. At last she kicked her way up, and Wlore spurred the warg forward just as a crossbow bolt whined past her ear.
"Close one," she commented cheerfully. Cebu moaned and tightened her already vise-like grip around Wlore's waist.
They bounded after the others, neatly dodging the orcs who had by now reached the bottom and were trying to fend off the remaining wargs. Judging from the screams, their efforts were largely unsuccessful.
Wlore bared her teeth in an exhilarated grin as they hurtled down a dark corridor, scattering goblins as they went. Eredolyn and Cebu wrapped their legs around the warg's middle and their arms around the person in front, and concentrated on not falling off. They bounced and slid with every bound.
"Where's Eicys?" Cebu screamed at Eredolyn.
"She's with Ungrath!" Eredolyn shouted back. "They're just ahead!"
"What about Dilly?" yelled Cebu.
"With Taras and Tuima! I can't talk anymore, I think I might swallow my tongue!"
This seemed increasingly likely as the warg settled into a jarring gallop that threatened to shake the teeth from their heads.
"Where are we going?" Cebu hollered into Wlore's ear.
"Out!" shouted Wlore.
"I thought you didn't know the way!"
"No! We're asking the wargs, remember? Eredolyn's idea!"
Despite the fact that every muscle in her body was already fully occupied with just staying on, Cebu managed to turn around and give Eredolyn a murderous look.
"How are you asking them?" Eredolyn managed to shout.
"We just let them run! They don't like being in these tunnels either!"
Eredolyn noticed the `either,' but didn't have time to think about it, because just then they skidded around a corner and were hit by a veritable wall of blinding sunlight.
In fact it was only a weak glow showing from the door, which was around yet another corner, but it seemed painfully brilliant to their dark-accustomed eyes. The wargs howled, gathered themselves, and hurtled gleefully through the doorway.
The last rays of the setting sun gleamed redly across the plains as three wargs and their riders left Isengard behind, running towards Fangorn Forest, and freedom.
*Author's Note* The tactics used by Wlore in this chapter are, in fact, feasible (although I've never steered a hose by its ears: I am neither strong enough nor heartless enough. But this was a warg, so we're not too worried about it). It is true that horses are best controlled from their backs, and that you can make a makeshift halter and reins from a single piece of rope. It is also true that pulling your mount's head around to your knee is a very good way to discipline it. Of course, so is bashing it over the head a `la Ungrath, but I do not recommend this in most equine situations. Neither does Wlore. She adds, however, that wargs are a special case and that it is important to consider circumstances.