Muse Quest - Chapter 29: Healing


I know, I know -- it's been forever and a day since this story was updated! But in my defense, 18 credit hours and a job will melt any brain into a useless puddle of fizzling neurons.
Anyway. Hopefully this is long enough that our wonderful readers will be forgiving... as an extra incentive to kindness, the next two chapters are already written and will be appearing shortly. Thanks muchly, all! We love you guys!

CHAPTER 29: HEALING

Eicys slowed as she got closer to her friend. He was hunched up with his head on his knees and his arms wrapped around himself to ward off the cold. Still fuming from the others' callous attitude, Eicys nevertheless took a minute to look him over. She was so used to him that his appearance hardly even registered with her any more, but for a moment she tried to see him the way the others did.
It was not a pleasant experience. Ungrath was enormous; easily seven feet tall, with proportionate width of chest and shoulder. His black hair hung in a snarled mat to the middle of his back, and almost every inch of him was covered with blood - even his face was smeared with inky streaks. To be honest, he could have done with more of them... anything that hid that hideous mottled skin could be counted an improvement. His nose was flat and crooked, and one fang protruded from between twisted black lips. Eicys glanced unwillingly at his hands: massive gauntleted affairs with claws that looked thoroughly usable.
She took an involuntary step backwards.
Ungrath groaned, shifted, and blinked blearily up at her. Eicys couldn't resist a little sigh of relief when she saw his familiar brown eyes peering out of that horrible face. "Morning," she said.
"Nngh," grunted Ungrath. Orcs do not make good morning people. He squinted at her, hesitated, and slowly let his gaze travel to the looming trees. Ugly memories went crashing across his face. "Oh," he said tonelessly, and shut his eyes tight. After a small, tight silence he said, without opening them, "I was dead, wasn' I." It wasn't really a question.
Eicys winced. "Well, you - you were..." He opened his eyes and looked at her wearily.
"Yes," Eicys said in a tiny voice.
Ungrath rubbed his eyes, paused, and pulled his hands away to peer at them unsteadily. Eventually he looked up again. "You a'right?"
"Am I...? I mean - Yes, I'm fine," she said incredulously. He gave a stiff nod and then clambered to his feet, shivering. But before he could stand up straight, he let out a gasp and sat down again in a cacophany of armor.
"Ungrath?" Eicys asked anxiously. The uruk's teeth were clenched and his face looked even more grey than usual.
"I'm a'right," he hissed, with a glare that dared her to contradict. Grimly, he hauled himself upright again, swaying. Eicys reached out an anxious hand, but he ignored it, staring fixedly at nothing until he could breathe properly again. Slowly his fists eased and opened.
"What happened?" Eicys squeaked.
"I don' know," he said irritably, and just a little bit too quickly. He looked at his hand, winced, and curled it into a fist again. "What did you want?"
Eicys was taken aback. "I... brought you some breakfast."
He eyed the chunk of bread. "You c'n have it," he muttered. "I'm not hungry."
"Neither am I," Eicys lied promptly. "Eat it."
He hesitated a moment longer, then took the bread. "Thanks," he mumbled without looking at her.
"Don't mention it," said Eicys.
The trees creaked. Eicys fiddled restlessly with a tangled lock of hair.
"Ungrath, are you okay?" she burst out. He scowled. "You just - you look really different," she hurried on defensively, and even as she said it realized how true it was. "Really different," she said again. "And... and yesterday..."
"Nothin' wrong with me," he growled. "Don' you have somethin' else t' do?"
Eicys gaped.
"Cebu and I were going to look for water," she said at last, a little coldly. "The others want to know if you could get some firewood."
"Yeah," said Ungrath, staring at his hands again. He saw her looking, and stuck them behind his back.
"Ungrath..." she tried again.
He stiffened. "What?" It was almost a snarl.
Eicys sighed gustily. "Never mind. Be careful, all right?"
He glanced at the trees. "Yeah," he said again, and watched her leave.

* * * * * *

Cebu eyed her little sister askance as they pushed their way through the late February undergrowth. She had noticed yesterday how jumpy Eicys had become, but she had attributed it to anxiety about the escape. But even now, Eicys flinched at sudden movements or noises, and once when Cebu reached out to pull a leaf from her sister's hair, Eicys had jumped backwards so quickly she almost fell over.
After this incident, they walked in silence for quite a while. Eventually Cebu said quietly, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," said Eicys. And she didn't. Not at all. But Cebu looked so worried... "It's just habit, I guess," Eicys muttered. "Living with orcs..." She trailed off and shrugged, hoping that was the end of it.
"Was it that bad?" Cebu asked in a low voice.
Eicys shrugged again.
"Ungrath seems all right, though," Cebu ventured after another long pause, hoping to draw her sister out.
"He won't talk to me," muttered Eicys, kicking at a tree root. Overhead, branches rattled warningly. The two of them hurried on. "I'm getting worried," Eicys said, more to herself than to her sister. "He's acting so different - and he looks different, too."
Cebu wasn't sure what to say to that, and Eicys seemed to have clammed up pretty thoroughly on the subject anyway. So the two of them walked in uncomfortable silence until the trees opened up again slightly, and they heard the welcome sound of running water.
"Not too far from camp," said Cebu. "But this clearing looks a lot nicer. Look at that overhang thing - that would make a good shelter." Eicys nodded obediently. "Do you think we should move?" asked Cebu.
Eicys scuffed a foot in the leaves. "Dilly."
"Oh," said Cebu miserably. "Right. Well, maybe once she's fixed up a bit..." She unslung the three empty canteens they had brought out of Isengard, and knelt next to the stream. Once they had been filled, she took a long drink of the running water and splashed her face. Eicys did likewise, then after a brief hesitation, dunked her head in as well. She came up gasping and sputtering with cold, but looked very relieved as she finger-combed blood and dirt out of her hair.
"I've been dreaming about hot showers since we got here," she said, and steeled herself to submerse her head again. She gasped. "Guess this is the next best thing."
Cebu tugged a few tangled copper curls around to the front. One of them had a leaf stuck in it, and another was clumped around a few velcro-like burrs. "I don't think a stream would even make a difference with mine," she lamented.
"Hang on..." Eicys leaned over. "What the - ? Cebu, you still have a keyboard letter in your hair!"
"What?"
"It's a `q'," said Eicys, bemused. "Man, those are some seriously thick curls you have."
"I know," Cebu said glumly. She examined the plastic letter. "It seems like forever since that party. Our biggest worry was whether Coralie was ever going to come up with chapter forty-one." She laughed a little and stuck the `q' in the pocket of her battered jeans.
"Actually," Eicys said, arching her back to avoid the trickle of icy water dripping from her hair, "Eredolyn thinks that still is a big worry. She says the story won't go anywhere until Coralie writes again."
"Yeah, that's what Euterpe was saying too, remember?"
"Oh yeah," said Eicys. "She gave us some sort of quest-thing. As if. We've been having enough trouble just staying alive."
"Muse Quest," said Cebu. "Sounds like a computer game or something."
"Huh. I wish I could hit the Escape button." Eicys wrung out her hair and flipped it over a shoulder. "Brr," she said.
"Well, here's the `q' if you want it," said Cebu. "And now I think I'll have a shower."
"Yeah, here's the shampoo, and the bubble bath..."
"What I really want is conditioner," said Cebu, kneeling by the stream. "Yiyiyi! Yikes, that's cold!"
"What I really want is toothpaste," said Eicys, making a face.
Cebu made one, too. "I stand corrected. Toothpaste would be best."
"And toilet paper."
"Thank you, I was trying not to think about that."
"Sorry." Eicys shivered in the cold morning air. "Let's get back to camp," she said, and tried not to sound bitter when she added, "Maybe Ungrath will feel like talking by now."
"If he and Taras haven't killed each other yet," said Cebu.
Eicys laughed, but there was a definite nervous edge to the sound. "Let's go," she said again, and Cebu picked up the filled canteens and joined her.

* * * * * *

Eredolyn crouched next to her friend, feeling thoroughly useless and miserable. Everyone was gone: Tuima had taken Wlore with her to gather what stunted herbs could be found in late February, Taras had very reluctantly left to set some makeshift traps in the surrounding woods, and Eredolyn had no idea where Ungrath was - but Taras would probably have something to say about the matter. Eredolyn sighed, eyeing the worn-out track in the leaves: it was exactly four strides long, and disturbingly deep. Taras had obviously been pacing all night.
Tuima and Wlore returned first, with a cloak full of wilted, weedy plants and bits of bark. "No fire?" asked Tuima wearily.
Eredolyn shook her head. "Everything I can find is wet. And I don't know how to start one without matches, anyway."
"Matches?" queried Wlore, but Tuima was already sorting through the little pile of herbs.
"I can't do much without hot water," she said, "but we can start grinding a few of these..."
She was interrupted by the return of Ungrath, who appeared to be carrying the better half of a tree. Jaws dropped. Tuima's eyebrows seemed to be seeking a close acquaintance with her hairline. Oblivious to their stares, Ungrath dropped the log with a thud that rattled Eredolyn's teeth and showered the clearing with dead leaves. The uruk shook his shaggy head to dislodge a few, set his claws into a crack in the wood, and began to pull it apart. The muscles in his back and arms strained and knotted as he wrenched the crack wider and wider until with a CRACK and a shower of splinters, the whole log split in two. He then set about methodically breaking each half into manageable pieces until he had a neat stack of firewood sitting where there had once been most of a tree.
Then he stood up, rubbed dirty hands on his already filthy shirt, and turned to go.
He stopped. "What?" he asked harshly. He scanned the staring faces. "It was dry, I checked," he said defensively.
"That's good," said Tuima faintly. Then, after a brief pause, she added, "Thank you."
Ungrath looked surprised, but jerked his head in a nod. "D'you need any more?"
Tuima eyed the towering pile. "I think we'll be all right for a while," she said. Ungrath nodded again. He turned to go a second time, but balked at the tangled dark of Fangorn just beyond the clearing.
"You can stay, if you want," said Eredolyn to his back. He turned, looking tense and suspicious, and his eyes flickered toward the Elf.
Tuima and Wlore exchanged a look. Tuima nodded warily.
Ungrath hesitated. He took a step forward - and stopped abruptly. There was a jumble of voices, and then Taras stepped into the clearing, followed closely by Eicys and Cebu. Both girls were trying surreptitiously to flatten their wet, tangled hair, and kept shooting sideways glances at the young Gondorian. They would both have denied this vehemently, but it was true nonetheless - Taras simply had that effect on girls. Tall, graceful, sea-grey eyes, a tumble of ebony hair, and the most gorgeous smile - depressingly rare, yes, but definitely swoon-inducing. And right now he had turned it, briefly and half-heartedly, on Eicys, who couldn't prevent an answering smile from flooding her face like a new lightbulb.
"Did you find any water?" asked Tuima. Cebu held up the canteens. "Good," said Tuima, her long fingers neatly stripping leaves from a sharp-smelling plant. "These need to be boiled, and I have to wash the wound. Taras, if you wouldn't mind starting a... Oh. Thank you."
"Where did you find so much dry wood?" Taras asked, his arms full of splintered log.
"Ungrath brought it," said Eredolyn. "He had a whole - Hey, where'd he go?"
"He left when these three came," Tuima said absently, tipping some water into one of Eicys' discarded shoulder-plates, which had been beaten and bent into a more bowl-like shape. "I wish you hadn't thrown away your helmet, Eicys."
"Sorry," said Eicys just as absently. "Where'd he go?"
"Who?"
"Ungrath."
"I don't know," said Tuima, still without looking up. "He'll be back soon. The trees don't like him much."
Taras muttered something, but it was lost in the sound of steel striking flint. He was grateful they had that much, at least: it had been stuck in a side pocket of the orkish packs, thank Eru. Lost in a hostile wood without blankets, food, medicine, shelter... Throw in a wounded comrade, three very hungry wargs, and a massive orc, and their situation was an ideal recipe for complete and utter disaster. He blew carefully on the sparks until they caught.
Tuima promptly hung the armor-bowl over the flame and threw in a few leaves and a heavy handful of shredded bark. She was muttering to herself, and Taras, who as a Númenorean had learned some Sindarin, caught a few words: "Yarrow, comfrey, nettle... where's the witch hazel... no, here's the willow bark... Right." She scraped a greeny-brown paste off of the rock she'd been using as a pestle and dropped it into a canteen, which she shook vigorously and handed to Taras. "Give this to her to drink," she ordered, already dropping tiny yellow petals into the water over the fire. "The rest of you, go away." She brushed a pile of something that smelled truly awful into a folded dock leaf and put it under a stone to hold it together. After a while she looked up. "Well?" she said. "I can't concentrate with all of you bumbling around like this. Go away."
The Immies shared a few sour glances, but obediently retreated. All but one. "I'm not leaving," Eredolyn said stubbornly. "I can help."
Tuima gave her a contemptuous look. "Go away," she said.
"No. She's my best friend. I'm staying."
The Elf didn't bother looking up again. "Go away."
"Taras is staying!"
"Taras is the only one who can help me set the bone back in place. And besides, he doesn't hover."
"I don't - "
"Go away, Eredolyn."
The tone was so imperious that it sent Eredolyn's legs stumbling backwards without the apparent intervention of her brain. She stepped forward again angrily, her mouth open to -
"You would only be in the way," said Tuima, in a voice of deadly calm.
Eredolyn turned white and red by turns. Finally she stomped away into the forest, shoving brush out of her way. Tuima watched her go impassively, then reached over her shoulder, pulled one of her long Elvish knives out of its sheath, and held it point-down in the boiling water.
"Did she drink the willow?" she asked Taras, who nodded, still a little taken aback. "Good," she sighed. Then, gritting her teeth, she pulled her knife out, peeled the mangled t-shirt away from Dilly's shoulder, and - Taras let out a strangled yell of shock - sliced cleanly through the messily healing wound. Dilly, already unconscious, nevertheless tensed for a moment before slumping back against Taras' anxious arms, looking even paler than before.
"What did you do that for?" he almost shouted.
"Infection," she said. "Look."
Taras looked, and wished he hadn't. "Was it poisoned?" he whispered.
"No," said Tuima shortly. "Just crushed, and extremely dirty." The Elf dipped a torn-off strip of cloth into the boiling water. "Make sure she doesn't move," she said, and began cleaning the wound very carefully, deftly extracting bits of cloth and dirt and even - Taras blanched - splinters of bone. Now he could - somewhat - understand her evicting the others: she wore the most intensely concentrated look he had ever seen.
After a long while a faint stream of Elvish murmuring swam into the audible spectrum, but it was in Quenya and Taras didn't understand any of it. The water bubbled gently, giving off a cloud of sharp-smelling herbal steam. Tuima dipped her cloth delicately back into the pot without scalding her fingers, held it until it cooled slightly, and laid it on the newly cleaned wound, still murmuring. Dilly sighed, and sagged a little further against Taras.
"All right," said Tuima quietly, taking a deep breath. "Have you seen bones set before?"
Taras just nodded.
"Right," said Tuima. "Hold here... good... Now."

Dilly's scream brought every Immie in hearing distance pelting back into the clearing. Eredolyn skidded to a stop in a flurry of dead leaves, scratched, dissheveled and thoroughly appalled. "What happened?" she demanded wildly.
Tuima deliberately picked a leaf off of her sleeve and turned back to Dilly, removing the herb-soaked cloth and dipping it back into the pot. She retrieved the dock leaf of crushed herbs, shook them into the cloth, and laid it against the wound again before saying anything.
"We set her collarbone."
"Didn't you put her to sleep first?" Eicys demanded in horror.
"Of course," Tuima snapped. "But she could have been dead and she probably would have screamed at that." Taras shivered quietly. He was almost as pale as Dilly.
"Dilly doesn't scream," Eredolyn argued. "Once she threw her knee out of joint and she just smashed it against a bedpost to stick it back into place - didn't bother her at all." It was Cebu's turn to shudder.
"Nevertheless," said Tuima crisply. She took the makeshift pot off the fire and began dropping in various decimated plants until it was thick and brown. It smelled almost violently medicinal. Then she looked up, one eyebrow raised in that obnoxiously refined way she had, and gave the Immies a look that said, "Why are you still here?"
The Immies backed away, cowed and irritated. But once again, Eredolyn didn't move. "I'm staying, Tuima," she said. The arched brow inched derisively higher: several of the retreating Immies winced. Eredolyn ignored it and sat down next to the fire, taking Dilly's free hand - the other was firmly in Taras' grip. "I'm staying," she said.
Tuima's eyes narrowed. "All I have left to do is make a compress to draw out the infection, and then stitch up the wound," she said dismissively, but without the usual acid. She gave Eredolyn a look that seemed to be reading her mind - and circling all the mistakes with a little red pencil. Finally, she said, "Would you hand me the calendula? The orange flowers - yes, there."
Eredolyn handed it to her, bemusedly realizing that she was allowed to stay. The Elf never looked up from her work, but she said, "Thank you," and seemed to feel better afterwards.
Eredolyn only looked down at her friend and didn't say anything. She was glad Tuima was there to take care of Dilly, but that didn't mean she liked her - the Elf was imperious, sarcastic, and extremely thin-tempered. It didn't help that she actually had a right to be: Tuima practically dripped with poise and competence, while the rest of the girls had been floundering about in their new environment like headless chickens. With the possible exception of Eicys, they had all made rather a mess of things, and Eredolyn had definitely made the worst mess of all. She felt as though an ice cube had slipped into her stomach at the thought of Saruman and his enchanted voice.
"Eredolyn! The slippery elm, if you wouldn't mind?" Eredolyn jumped guiltily at the realization that the impatient Elf had already asked twice. There - it's happening again, she thought as Taras nudged her hand toward a pile of powdered bark. Somehow she's always in perfect control, totally on top of things, with a perfect right to be exasperated. It wouldn't be so bad if she occasionally made some mistakes, acted a bit more... human...
Oh.

Eredolyn poured a measure of the elm bark into Tuima's waiting hand. She doesn't even look human, Eredolyn thought, wondering at their stupidity on first meeting her. To be fair, they had hardly expected an Elf to show up at the school costume party. Even so, they had all taken to her - at least at first. It wasn't that she was... stunning, or anything like that. In fact, she was rather nondescript: brown hair, hazel eyes, straight nose. But there was something alien there: something distinctly other. She was all long, graceful lines and delicate points, and she moved differently: as though every last atom was under her complete control. Her skin was flawless, too, and she seemed to have no trouble avoiding the muck and blood and generic grime that clung to the rest of the Immies.
In fact, Eredolyn thought sourly, she would be a perfect little Mary-Sue if she didn't give the impression that she ought to be wearing a severely plain dress and a tight bun and hideous, sensible shoes. Yes, Eredolyn decided, that was it. Tuima was a sort of Middle-earth Miss Minchin (apart from her ability to swear the air blue when she lost her temper) who had been landed with a class of dim, unruly children whom she was not allowed to cane. How terribly aggravating for her, Eredolyn thought, oozing sarcasm from every pore. She felt very let down: of the many things that Eredolyn had imagined Elves being, primly sarcastic was not one of them.
In fact, this whole stupid adventure was a letdown. When she had fantasized about Middle-earth back home, somehow all the cold and blood and dirt had been left out. And now... Eredolyn wound her fingers with Dilly's and squeezed hard. Now, even the happy ending was looking uncertain.
Eredolyn sighed, tightening her grip on Dilly's hand. She never thought she'd say this, but the sooner they got out of Middle-earth, the better.

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