Muse Quest - Chapter 32: An Experiment Goes Right
Er... hey folks! Long time no see! Granted, that's entirely my fault. *Is sheepish* Many, many apologies. I don't even have a decent excuse. BUT, we have yet to equal the updating gap of Lady Coralie, whom we still -- against all sense -- have not yet given up on. So there.
(psst, Lady Coralie -- did you catch that? Okay, good, just checking. It was a hint, you realize. A blatant one.)
Ahem. CHAPTER 32
...Then Eicys became aware of a wet patch on her shoulder, and went stiff out of sheer amazement. Ungrath let go of her hastily and dragged a harsh hand over his eyes, but she had seen enough.
Ungrath was crying.
Eicys felt her heart crack. She reached out a hand again, but Ungrath jerked backwards at her touch as though he'd been stung. "Oh, don't," she cried miserably. Ungrath wiped his face with an arm and looked away, humiliated.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
Eicys sighed. "Are you all right?"
He looked down at himself and said in a deceptively steady voice, "Yeah, I think so. Doesn' hurt anymore." He flexed his fingers. "I... look different..."
"Human," offered Eicys.
He looked up, and his expression was hunted. "Don't," he growled.
"You do!" she protested.
"Khardik, Eicys," he swore in the Black Speech. "Don't. I'm an orc."
Eicys fell silent, unsure of how to contradict him when he was already so off-balance.
After a long moment, Ungrath looked up, his face still twisted with shame, and muttered, "Sorry," a second time.
Eicys nodded. After a while, she cleared her throat and said softly, "Ungrath, you really do look human now." His gaze dropped to his hands, and then away. "Why won't you believe me?" she asked.
There was a long pause. At last Eicys sighed and started to say something else, but was interrupted: "First," growled Ungrath, "'Cause it's impossible."
"So is coming back from the dead," Eicys interjected.
He glared. "It's impossible because the only explanation for this is Sharkey's... meddling. An' nothin' good ever comes outta tha' wizard's work."
"That's not true. You came out of it."
"Thanks," snarled Ungrath, and added, "An' that proves it."
"Second," he said, hesitated, started to say something, and stopped again. Eventually he clenched his fists and said, "Look, just trust me on this, a'right? I couldn' be aythin' but an orc. I've done... some awful stuff..."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Ungrath," said Eicys. "I know you. You wouldn't hurt anyone." His expression brought her up short. "...Would you?"
Ungrath looked away, which was answer enough. "Third," he said with an obviously painful effort, "Somethin' like this has happened t' me before, an' it wasn' pretty. I went... sorta crazy."
Eicys hesitated. "What do you mean?" she asked, and watched uneasily as Ungrath's familiar brown eyes darkened with the shadows dancing in his memory.
"I...was..." Half-mad with pain and terror - that smooth dark icy voice, a welter of confusion, horror, raging fury...
His eyes snapped back into focus, but the shadows were still hovering behind them. "I went wrong, a'right?" he said. "Sharkey was thrilled, thought for a while I'd turned out perfect, until I..." He swallowed. "There was this girl, she looked like you, but she had long black hair, like ink, an' these... eyes..." Ungrath shuddered, and looked away. There was a terrible silence. "You still goin' t' tell me I'm human now?" he asked dully.
There was a long silence. "Why didn't you tell me before?" asked Eicys.
"Ha," said Ungrath bitterly, still not looking at her. His matted black hair swung down to hide his face; Eicys could be sure only of a gleam of eyes. Slowly she reached out to touch his shoulder. He flinched, turning hard as stone beneath her fingers. Eicys tilted her head, trying to see his face. It was dirty and ugly, but definitely human, and her friend's familiar eyes looked out of it, even if they wouldn't meet her own.
"Ungrath," she said slowly, "Did you like killing?"
He looked at her now. "No," he snarled.
He shrugged her hand away and spat out a single word. "Sharkey."
"The experiment?" He didn't answer. "That's why you've been avoiding us," she persisted. "You thought it was happening again?"
"Feels just like last time," he mumbled by way of explanation.
Eicys remembered that horrible agonized scream, and the sight of her friend curled up small, shuddering with pain - her friend who'd shaken off injuries that should have killed him.
Injuries that had killed him.
She felt ill.
"Ungrath - it's not happening again," she said quietly, fiercely. His lips thinned. "I can prove it," she said. "Come look at your reflection."
To her enormous surprise, Ungrath shook his head violently. "Ohh, no," he said. "I'm not lookin' in there again."
Eicys was bewildered. "Why not?"
"There's somethin' wrong with tha' water," he said.
"It's perfectly normal water," Eicys began, leaning to look in the pool. Ungrath gave a stifled sort of shout and scrambled around to block her, throwing the shining surface a wary glance before looking back to Eicys.
He froze, eyes still on her face.
He blinked once or twice, swallowed, and very slowly turned his head back to the water. Eicys craned over his shoulder.
"See?" she said. "A perfectly normal reflection, in perfectly normal water."
"I don' look like tha'," said Ungrath hoarsely.
"Actually you do."
Ungrath sank to his knees on the pebbled bank and stared. Eicys' reflection smiled broadly right next to his for a long while, but eventually she gave his shoulder an impatient little poke. He jumped and ripped his eyes away from the pool to meet hers.
"Well?" said Eicys.
He wore an expression of wild hope barely held in check. He looked battered and dazed and disbelieving. "I - I don' look like tha'," he said raggedly, and Eicys gave him her most exasperated look.
"Just admit it," she said. "I was right. You're human."
The light in his eyes flickered out, and he said in a low, harsh voice, "Eicys, I told you what I did - "
"Yes you did," said Eicys. "And that's proof you're not an orc. You've never acted like an orc if you had any choice in the matter. You think you'd be my friend if that weren't true?"
He managed a crooked smile. "I always thought you had rotten judgment."
"Ungrath," Eicys said seriously. "You're the best friend I've ever had."
Ungrath stopped, and his eyes found hers. And to Eicys' relief he didn't scoff or argue this time; he just stared at her, as though searching for something. After a very long moment, he said quietly, "Thank you." His eyes were subtly brighter. "Er, I've never had any other friends, so it doesn' mean much for me t' say it back," he said self-deprecatingly, and that tiny little crooked grin crossed his face again, snapping the tension into little sparkling shards.
Eicys nearly laughed out loud with relief. "I've missed you, Ungrath," she said impulsively.
The smile widened imperceptibly. "Missed you too," he muttered.
Eicys beamed, and settled back on her heels. Whatever her friend might look like, some things would never change. She was just glad to see that the little gleam in his eyes was back. She took a deep breath and hoped that her next words weren't going to lead to it fading again. "So - are you ready to go back to the others?"
* * * * * *
Taras and Dilly were fighting.
That is to say, they were throwing clumps of grass and leaves at one another, with Taras suffering from strangely bad aim unless Dilly used her bad arm, in which case he always scored a direct hit.
Eredolyn rolled her eyes. Taras obviously hadn't caught on to an essential Dilly-ism: she did not appreciate being coddled. She was therefore using her bad arm as much as possible, to make Taras fight back for real. But Taras wasn't stupid; he quickly figured out what was happening, and responded perfectly.
A flurry of missiles exploded around Dilly's face. She yelped and hurriedly switched to her right arm so that she could pay him back properly. The barrage went on until the whole area was denuded of leaves and small-scale vegetation, and Dilly was breathless with laughter. Taras beamed, his usual stern reserve melting away completely: sea-grey eyes danced with delight. He loved hearing Dilly laugh - for three years he'd craved nothing so much as honest human laughter, and somehow Dilly's was better than anyone else's.
A few yards away, Eredolyn and Cebu each caught the other staring dreamily. Cebu burst out laughing, and Eredolyn rolled her eyes, grinning broadly. "Fair's fair," she sighed with mock resignation. "And it's not like we'd stand a chance."
"Yeah," said Cebu, "but sometimes I wonder how come I couldn't have been stuck in the cell across from Taras."
Eredolyn tried to look long-suffering while wearing an enormous grin, and failed miserably. The two of them wandered off and were promptly caught by Tuima, who was making dinner. "Rabbit food," they sighed, a term long since coined by Wlore to describe the Immies' scant, foul-tasting food supply of boiled bark, roots, and leaves. The Rohirric girl looked up with a wry grin; she'd been put to work as well.
"Rabbit food," she agreed, then triumphantly held up a sad, bloody wad of fur. "And rabbit!"
Eredolyn looked slightly nauseous. "Oh, man," said Cebu in an odd little voice. "You killed Thumper!"
It is a terrible thing to see a hot-tempered Rohirric shieldmaiden, bloody to the wrists, giving you a look of puzzled, injured innocence while a rabbit head swings obscenely from one hand. Eorlingas really are no good at looking innocent. "It got caught in one of Taras' traps," she said. "I thought Tuima could - sorry, Tuima - I thought we could all pitch in and make some stew." She saw the two girls still staring queasily at the limp, headless rabbit. "Unless you'd rather eat warg?" she finished.
Eorlingas are no good at sounding innocent, either.
The two girls glanced over at the tethered wargs, around which a cloud of flies buzzed. Ropes of drool hung from yellow fangs; their coarse coats were matted with Eru knew what filth. Two were fighting, and one was scratching some unknowable gangrenous patch on its snout.
"Thumper for dinner," Cebu agreed immediately. "I'll go take care of the boiled roots, shall I?"
"Right this way," Tuima said blandly.
* * * * *
"They won't," Ungrath said stubbornly yet again.
"They will. They're my friends. It's not like they're going to bite your head off."
"Eicys, you didn' even recognize me," he pointed out.
"Yes I did," she argued lamely. "It just... took me a minute."
"A minute of bein' scared outta your mind. You think the tark will bother wi' tha'? I'd be gettin' my neck introduced to tha' sword of his within half a second. An' I left my scimitar in Orthanc." He sounded rather disappointed about this.
"You know, you're not going to make Taras your friend by calling him orc-names," said Eicys irrelevantly. She'd been watching her friend's face, and had caught that little flicker when he mentioned her reaction.
"I don' want Taras for a friend," growled Ungrath, his eyes hard with dislike.
"Oh, for the love of - Just give him a chance," said Eicys.
"I will if he will."
"He's a really nice guy," she protested.
He slanted her an odd look. "You like him?"
"Of course! He's very smart and polite, he's absolutely incredible with a sword, he's..."
"Handsome?" suggested Ungrath shrewdly.
Eicys turned red. "I was going to say, he just... holds everyone together. You know? You can tell he's a prince. He's a good leader." She resisted a childish urge to say so there, and changed the subject instead. "How about if I go in and talk to everyone before you come out?"
"An' what'll you tell them?" Ungrath asked. "I don' even know what happened, except tha' it's Sharkey's fault, an' tha's not goin' to go down too well."
"Ungrath," Eicys said, "You know Saruman didn't mean for this to happen."
"Yeah, an' I'm sure tellin' them I'm a wizard's mistake will go down even better," he retorted.
Eicys paused. "I'll figure it out," she said. "They'll understand."
"They won't," he said again.
He sighed, and sat down. Eicys massaged her neck absently, glad that she didn't have to keep staring up anymore. "I'll just wait here, then," he said. His tone was reasonable enough, but Eicys was reminded of what a long and terrible day he'd had. He still looked exhausted.
She nodded, and took a few steps in the direction of the campsite before pausing to look back. "Um, I'm really sorry about... earlier. When I didn't recognize you, I mean."
There was that flicker again, but Ungrath looked away hurriedly and shrugged his shoulders. "Don' worry abou' it," he said casually.
Eicys hesitated a second longer, but simply said, "I'll be back soon. Don't go anywhere."
He gave her another crooked smile and an expressive look at the trees, which were still creaking menacingly every time he moved.
"Oh," said Eicys. "Right. Well, I'll be back in just a minute, okay? I'll see you soon." And with a last reassuring smile she disappeared into the forest.
Ungrath sat back, listening to her footsteps fade away. His gaze dropped to his hands, jerked hurriedly away, and then slowly and unwillingly came back again. After a long moment, he got up and looked in the pool again. He had to clench his teeth against the shock, even though he'd seen it before: a human face looked back at him, all light coppery skin and oversized, nervous brown eyes. It was a very ugly face, but nowhere near as bad as it had been.
"All right," he said aloud. "What's goin' on, an' why?"
Nothing happened. The water continued to reflect his strange new face. At last Ungrath sat back, staring at his hands again and straining for a memory, a flicker - anything that would explain what was happening to him.
There was nothing. The events surrounding the experiment were - thankfully - a hazy horrible blur, and before the experiment there was a blank wall, and nothing more. The furthest back he could remember...
And so, my new young ungrath, let us experiment. Let us see what can be done in the face of Death...
Ungrath was jerked away from the memory with an involuntary yell as a coil of pain rolled up his spine. Then there was another of them, and another. "Oh, Valar, no," he begged aloud in sudden realization. "Not again..." But there was nothing he could do except curl up tight against the growing agony and grit his teeth to hold back screams.
The screams made it out anyway.
* * * * *
Back at camp, Taras was trying to convince Dilly to lie down again, and not doing too well. Dilly was strong, stubborn, and thoroughly sick of sleeping. Eventually Taras resorted to bribery.
"Go to sleep, and when you wake up I'll... I'll, er..." He cast about for a means of entertaining the unwilling invalid. "Juggle for you," he finished, without much hope of success.
But Dilly looked intrigued. "You can juggle? Really?" He nodded. "Weird," she said, and then corrected herself, "I mean - I wouldn't have ever thought you were the type." She began unconsciously working on a braid: a nearly incessant habit even when she had been back in civilization with all its luxuries, like rubber bands. But now she had only one hand available, and her hair was sticky with blood and festooned with what appeared to be the entire forest floor. She gave up rather quickly, disgruntled.
"Juggle first, and then I'll go to sleep," she bargained, contenting herself with tucking her thick hair behind her ears.
Taras scowled. Dilly smiled. "Promise?" Taras said sternly. She nodded, and he began gathering a handful of small pebbles. When he had enough he straightened, frowned for a moment as if thinking, and with a flick of his wrist sent four of them into a steady rise and fall over one hand. "Why don't I seem the type?" he asked curiously.
"Because, sir Taras," Dilly said with a very nearly straight face, "you have always been very careful of your own dignity."
He put his free hand over his heart and staggered backward theatrically, his expression injured. The pebbles never faltered.
"I'm certain that juggling can be good practice for a swordsman," Taras said. "Dexterity and... whatever." He snapped his wrist upwards, sending the pebbles soaring high. "And as for dignity," he said, and flipped a few extra pebbles up to join their friends, "we of the Isle of the Star are so far above mere mortals" - here he stuck his nose in the air and gave Dilly a haughty look - "that now we have to be very careful that nothing tips us off our pedestal."
Dilly laughed. She'd never seen Taras so light-hearted as in the past hour. Taras himself flashed her a brilliant grin. "So you'd better not tell any of my regiment about this," he warned.
"You said it was good practice," Dilly countered. "Haven't they ever seen you do it before?"
Taras shook his head: "I've never juggled before," he said.
"You've never juggled before, but you can do that?"
He looked faintly puzzled. "It's just control, and watching the pebbles properly. You don't even have to move your hands much, see?"
Dilly's astonishment slowly slid into a little half-admiring, half-challenging smile that went fizzing through Taras' blood like one of Mithrandir's famous fireworks. "What else can you do?" she asked, and Taras abruptly found himself wanting to show off. He was mildly astonished at this: he had always been rather reserved.
"Watch," he told Dilly, before good sense could interfere. He caught the soaring pebbles in one hand and scooped up a few more. Then he spread his feet and took a deep breath. He bounced the stones in his palm a few times, every muscle tensed, before tossing the fistful flat-handed into the air so that small stones flew in every direction.
Taras literally blurred. His long black hair snapped behind him. Dilly bit back a cry and found the young Gondorian on his knee next to her, snatching the final pebble out of the air inches before it hit the ground.
"Holy Hannah," Dilly squeaked. Taras stood up, poured all the pebbles into one hand, and stashed them in a pocket. Three or four promptly fell through a hole. Taras gave an exasperated smile and shook his ragged shirt until the others pattered through as well.
"How did you do that?" Dilly demanded. Taras shrugged, secretly pleased. She rocked back. "Do it again. I blinked and missed the whole thing!"
His eyes gleamed with suppressed laughter. "The lady made a promise," he said austerely.
"I don't know any ladies," retorted Dilly. Taras folded his arms. Dilly copied him exactly. A staring match ensued. Dilly had always thought she was good at these, but Taras could probably outstare a mirror, and eventually she had to give up. She was just lying down - with much grumbling, mostly for the look of the thing - when there was a happy cry from Cebu.
"Eicys! Is everything all right?"
Dilly promptly sat up again, causing Taras to run a hand through his hair until it stuck in every direction.
"Absolutely," smiled Eicys, as she emerged from the tangled forest. "Man, do I have a lot to tell you guys..."