Muse Quest - Chapter 30: Touchy

Cebu, Eicys and Wlore, banished a second time from the campsite, loitered some distance away, feeling useless and frustrated. Eicys had disappeared for a while, and come back in a high bad temper, looking hurt and sulky. Cebu tried to ask where she'd been, and, to her great surprise, nearly had her head bitten off. Eicys wasn't acting at all like herself - usually the two sisters were the best of friends.
Cebu then attempted a conversation with Wlore, and wasn't terribly surprised when that failed, too. "Everyone's so touchy lately," she muttered.
"Huh," growled Wlore. "This place is enough to make anyone... touchy." She scowled up at a tree. "Horrible forest."
The tree creaked back at her menacingly. "Oh, shut up," snapped Wlore, and a surprised silence descended immediately. Cebu couldn't help a grin. Wlore gave an annoyed shrug, trying to hide how tense the dark, stifling woods made her feel.
There was a rustle in the undergrowth, and Eredolyn shrugged her way through. "Her majesty says you can come back now," she told them dryly.
Two seconds later they were clustered around Dilly, asking nervous questions and commenting on how much better her shoulder looked already. Eredolyn, trailing behind them, grinned tiredly. Even Taras managed a brief, wan smile.
"But she's so pale," Cebu said uncertainly. It was true: Dilly was not merely pallid, she was stark papery white, and cold. Cebu was reminded unwillingly of a corpse.
"She lost a lot of blood," said Tuima, and the Immies turned to look at her oddly. The Elf's rigid control seemed to be slipping: she was actually mumbling. "I'll make an infusion... There are plants I can... Later." She climbed gracefully to her feet, muttered, "later," and glided off to a thick drift of leaves several yards away, where she folded limply into sleep.
"Is she all right?" Cebu asked in bewilderment.
"Elvish healing is a bit different from ours," said Taras simply. He pushed his overgrown hair out of a pale face.
"You should get some sleep too, Taras," Eredolyn accused, but he just shook his head.
"I'm all right," he said, with a real smile this time. There was a collective weakening of knees. "I'd better go check the traps," he said, and moved to stand up. He hesitated. "You'll come get me if... anything happens?" They nodded.
Taras smoothed Dilly's hair carefully out of her face, and lingered a moment looking down at her before he straightened, nodded at the Immies, and strode noiselessly into the forest. Someone sighed, and every girl was careful not to look at the others, in case it had been herself.
"You know," said Cebu lightly, "It might be incredibly stupid of me, but I could almost wish I was in Dilly's place right now."

* * * * * *
The mood in the camp was considerably improved after that - for all of half an hour. By then, the combination of cold, dirt, hunger, exhaustion, and worry had returned everyone - with the possible exception of Cebu, who had a disposition as cheerful as her hair - to the standard bad temper.
Even Cebu, though, was not exactly chipper. The redhead always wanted everyone around her to be happy and get along, and the current hostile atmosphere grated at her nerves as she looked them over one at a time.
The muscles in Wlore's thin arms stood out with suppressed tension and she looked up sharply at every groan from the looming trees. And after the third Immie, spurred on by the restless growling in one corner of the clearing, asked her how well she'd tied up the wargs, Wlore snapped and threatened to screw the head off the next person who even mentioned knots. And when Eredolyn ventured to ask about the anatomical possibilities of head-unscrewing, Wlore hissed something about "ears make very good handles." Eredolyn retreated hastily.
Eredolyn herself managed to act relatively normal, but Cebu had watched her closely enough to know it was an act. Eredolyn's expression was eaten up with worry and guilt whenever she thought no one was looking, and she crouched unhappily next to the fire, fussing over Dilly and watching Taras pace. He had been almost desperate to be helpful, but the Immies had banished him from every task because the tension pouring off him was contagious. So he had been relegated to pacing next to the fire: four steps, stop, turn. Four steps, stop, turn. Four steps...
"Taras, will you stop that?" Wlore snapped suddenly. At a sharp glance from Cebu, she added a grudging, "Please."
Taras stopped, and stood looking a little uncertain. Eventually he found a handy rock and sat down. His prison-pale face was an unhealthy grey in the forest's half-light and there were circles under his eyes, but he fidgeted restlessly. After a moment he stood up again. He caught Wlore's eye and sat down a second time, scowling.
"Look, just... just add an extra step to it or something," said Wlore. "You're wearing a rut in the dirt."
"Oh, forget it," Taras muttered dismissively. But barely two minutes later he was up again, and this time when he reached the fourth step he hesitated, and took another. He tried it again going the other way, then threw up his hands. "It's no good," he said. "I feel like I should have run into the wall."
"There isn't a wall," Wlore pointed out.
Taras stared at nothing. "I know," he said quietly.
Silence reigned for a moment. "Oh, never mind," sighed Wlore. "Pace all you want. I'm going to get some more firewood."
"Watch out for the trees," said Cebu. "They get really... irritable... when Tuima's not around."
"Huh. That proves this place is mad." Wlore disappeared into the forest.
Cebu and Eicys traded a rueful smile, but Eicys' was strained. Cebu's faltered as well. Ah yes. Eicys.
The youngest of the Immies didn't really seem any shorter-tempered than the rest of them at the moment - which wasn't saying much - but appearances can be deceiving. Cebu knew her sister, and this girl wasn't acting like her at all. She was willing to concede that a stint in the orc-barracks was enough to make someone jumpy - but nothing ought to be able to make Eicys act the way she was. She was brooding. Eicys didn't brood, or sulk. She didn't snap at you for no reason and then stalk off without apologizing. And she didn't keep flinching or looking over her shoulder.
The redhead finally pulled her sister aside, ignoring the jerky recoil when Cebu touched her arm. "Eicys," she said seriously, "Tell me what's wrong. Please."
"There's nothi--"
"Eicys." The word rang with Big Sister harmonics.
Eicys sighed gustily. "Everything, I guess."
"Everything and...?"
Her little sister glowered at the forest floor. "Ungrath," she muttered.
"Oh yeah," said Cebu. "I haven't seen him in a while - where is he?"
"Out in the forest," Eicys mumbled. "Being a total jerk."
Cebu blinked in confusion. "What happened?"
"I went to go find him," Eicys said, looking her sister straight in the feet. "I've been worrying about him all day." She scowled. "He told me to go away. He growled at me! He's acting like a - like - "
"An orc?" Cebu said shrewdly.
"Yes. No! Augh, I don't know!" Eicys clutched her hair, making the golden tangles stand on end. "There's something wrong with him, and I don't know what to do." She gave her sister a miserable glance. "He's the best friend I've ever had - he's saved my life probably twenty times over. And I - okay, don't freak out, Cebu - I just... See, he's..."
"...You don't have a crush on him?" Cebu asked with flat horror.
Eicys stared. "Ugh, no, Cebu. He's an orc."
"Oh good," Cebu almost gasped. "You had me worried."
"Yuck," said Eicys, looking revolted. "No... Yuck. What I was going to say is, well, I just don't feel comfortable without him around."
"Oh," said Cebu. "Why?"
"You've got to promise not to freak out," Eicys ordered her.
"Um. Okay..."
Eicys sighed. "See, orcs like to pick on whoever they can. And I was smaller than most of them, and not a very good fighter, so... so whenever Ungrath wasn't around to stop them..." She pushed up her sleeve and frowned absently at the horrible bruises mottling her arm. "You promised," she told her sister without looking up.
Cebu's usually merry blue eyes were sparking with fury, but she took a deep breath and tried for a light tone when she said, "No wonder you're so jumpy." It came out tight and strained.
"Yeah," said Eicys. "Sorry. It just got so that I can't relax unless he's around. I keep thinking someone's going to jump out at me or something. Stupid, I know."
"No, not at all," Cebu said faintly, still choking on her anger.
"I'm really worried about him," Eicys finished anxiously. "He looks so different... and now he's acting different, too."
"Well... he has been through rather a lot."
"Yeah," said Eicys, staring into the middle distance. "What do you think happened?"
"I have no idea," Cebu said honestly. "It doesn't make any sense."
Eicys sighed. "No. Nothing does, anymore."
Cebu could only nod agreement. Her mind was racing: she knew she wasn't going to have any luck cheering up the Immies at a time when even civil conversation was a stretch, but she could at least make one person feel better. Or maybe two. And if that meant small talk with an orc, so be it.

* * * * * *

Night drew on, engulfing the dark forest shadows in a deeper blackness. The Immies, determined not to have another night like the last, had heaped up an enormous pile of dried leaves and stocked up on firewood, and now the four human girls were huddled together, breathing steadily. Tuima lay a little distance away, wrapped in a cloak, stars and branches reflected alike in her unseeing eyes. Surprisingly, she didn't seem very cold. Taras, brooding with his back to the fire, decided it must be an Elvish thing and dismissed it.
He looked down at Dilly, whose skin was rose and gold in the firelight. It looked real enough that he could ignore the marble whiteness that froze the shadows of her face, pretend he hadn't failed again...
A twig snapped sharply. Taras melted away in a blur of speed, the subtle whisper of sword leaving sheath hanging in the air behind him.
Ungrath stepped into the clearing.
Taras, one more shadow among the trees, tightened his fingers around his sword hilt. Ungrath looked around suspiciously, clearly missing the Gondorian. He raised his head to sniff the air, and Taras tensed - but Ungrath stumbled back a step, clapping an enormous hand to his mouth to muffle his choking coughs. Taras caught a string of muttered oaths, and glanced at the pot of herbs that Tuima had left steaming by the fire before deciding enough was enough. He could have reached the orc in one swift movement - he'd positioned himself for that exact purpose - but instead he spoke.
Ungrath almost fell over when the voice came out of nowhere: "What are you doing?" He looked around wildly until a shadow detached itself from the trees, and Taras stood in front of him, sword held loosely at his side.
"Morgoth," Ungrath swore hoarsely. "What d'yeh want?"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm tired," the orc growled.
Taras gave him a level look that said, "And...?"
"The trees," Ungrath explained sullenly.
Of course, Taras realized. The denizens of Fangorn were hardly likely to let an orc sleep peacefully in their midst - but they seemed to have decided that the rest of the Immies were tolerable.
He hesitated, nodded, and stepped aside, sheathing his sword.
"I'll stay here," grated Ungrath. He threw a sideways look at the pot of herbs. Taras gave him another fathomless look before moving back to the fire, and Dilly. Ungrath sat down at a safe distance from the nearest trees, where he hunched up small with his head on his knees.
But unlike Taras, who was silent as snowfall even when he was pacing, Ungrath couldn't seem to keep quiet. His armor seemed almost absurdly oversized, and the thick iron plates clanked and scraped with every movement. Taras' eyes narrowed at him menacingly when Dilly stirred, and although the uruk glowered back, no one could beat Taras at glaring. The Prince's look was about as friendly as an Arctic sea.
Ungrath settled in on himself, grumpily, and after an achingly long time fell into a doze. Barely half an hour later, he jerked awake again with a muffled yell. Taras didn't say anything and eventually the uruk dropped off again - only to wake a second time, breathing hard in what looked like real pain. After that he stayed awake, scowling between the trees overhead and the steaming herbs by the fire.
Taras relented. His quiet voice broke the silence: "Are you cold?"
Ungrath jerked around to look at him. "Hand an' Eye," he swore. "Don' you ever sleep?"
"Apparently no more than you," said Taras lightly. He paused. "You can come sit by the fire if you want."
"Generous of yeh," Ungrath growled, with a sarcasm to rival Tuima's. "I'll stay here, thanks."
Taras' eyes glittered. "Suit yourself."
When Ungrath finally fell asleep again, Taras was still sitting motionless, one hand holding Dilly's and the other resting on his sword hilt, his grey eyes thoughtful and troubled.

* * * * * *

Dilly woke up the next morning. Consciousness returned in dizzy, creeping fragments, swimming through a dark grey fog.
The first sensation to penetrate was cold - a thick, damp chill that made her limbs feel heavy and flaccid. But she'd barely had time to register this when the second feeling struck. Still only vaguely conscious, Dilly flinched. From the base of her skull clear to the ends of her fingers, she hurt. She really, really hurt. She felt like someone had tried to chop her in half.
Sometimes metaphors come uncomfortably close to reality.
But the dull fire that throbbed across half her body was slowly resolving itself into a concentrated line of pain across her shoulder, and it didn't seem quite as bad as she remembered.
"Nn," said Dilly, and opened her eyes. For all of half a second she was staring up at the forest canopy, and then Taras was hovering over her, happy relief pouring off him like smoke.
"Hi," croaked Dilly.
"Hi," he said, sounding breathless and inane. "Ah - " he shook his head as if to clear it. "I mean, how are you feeling?"
"Fine," she said hoarsely. "Much better." To his horror, she tried to sit up, and frowned. "My arm won't work."
"It's not supposed to," he exclaimed. "Lay down."
"I can't even lift it," she grumbled, annoyed at her limp, unresponsive limbs. She felt about as strong as an overcooked noodle, but managed to haul herself upright anyway. Taras caught her and tried to ease her back down on the makeshift bed they'd constructed, but it was too late: sitting up had catapulted the threatening nausea into her throat. "Oh no..." said Dilly, and threw up.
Fortunately there was almost nothing in her stomach except Tuima's herbs, but it was still thoroughly unpleasant. And every hiccuping jerk sent shards of pain lancing through her shoulder.
"Are you all right?" Taras asked when she was finished.
Dilly groaned. She was cradled against the chest of the single most incredible, attractive guy in two worlds, feeling like something the cat dragged in and probably smelling even worse, and was completely unable to do anything about it.
She wiped her mouth shakily with her good arm and let Taras guide her gently back to the bed. "Sorry," she muttered.
"Oh, for Manwe's sake..." He looked around, and saw that Ungrath was the only other person awake. The orc was blinking awkwardly in the early sunlight, and his armor clattered as he shivered. "Ungrath, get Tuima," Taras ordered.
The uruk shook his head as if to clear it. "The Elf?" he asked, scowling at Taras' tone.
"Yes. Now."
Heavy fangs glinted briefly, but Ungrath clambered to his feet and stalked across the clearing to wake Tuima. Something about him was odd, but Taras was too busy with Dilly to pay attention.
The dark-haired girl watched him with groggy suspicion as he fumbled a flask open clumsily. Taras was never clumsy. "When did you last sleep?" she demanded, but he just shrugged and smiled. A stifled yelp from across the clearing indicated that Tuima was awake, and another smile flitted across Taras' face. Waking up to Ungrath bending over you was enough to make you swear off sleeping forever. A moment later the Elf was kneeling next to him, and Taras sat back gatefully and let her take charge.
And before the others had woken up, stiff and chilled but considerably more cheerful for a decent night's sleep, the color was returning to Dilly's face and he'd had to scold her three different times for trying to use her arm.
Nobody noticed that Ungrath had disappeared again.

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