Muse Quest - Chapter 33: New Faces
The Immies milled about, sniffing happily at the stew (the wargs were drooling the ground around themselves into mud) and talking quietly. No one quite knew what to make of Eicys' story, though Dilly, Cebu, and Eredolyn obviously had far less trouble with it than the others: their thoughts were running along the rather resigned track of, "hey, why not? Everything else that's happened so far is impossible, too."
But Eicys had left to get Ungrath a long while ago, and still wasn't back, so everyone was keeping busy with the usual tasks. Taras had appealed to Tuima, and Dilly had with bad grace taken a drink of something dark brown and evil-smelling, which gave the drinker the impression that their teeth had dissolved and were now coated on the throat lining. But despite the astringent taste, it had dulled the pain in her shoulder and was making her very drowsy. She was therefore staying awake.
"What did you put in this?" she asked Tuima, still grimacing. "Nettles?"
Dilly stared at her a moment. "It's got nettles in it?"
Tuima wasn't listening. She touched Taras lightly on the shoulder and drew back with a hiss as he said, very quietly, "Someone's coming."
It was amazing how Taras could command attention when he wanted to. Conversation ceased. "Eicys and Ungrath," Eredolyn reminded him, but uncertainly, because Taras had his sword out. No one had even seen him unsheathe it. He was at the edge of their little clearing, peering into the tangled dark of Fangorn.
"No..." Tuima explained absently. "Listen. That's not Ungrath's voice."
There was a pause. None of the others could hear anything. They watched Taras instead: his posture spoke volumes. There was an instant where he went strangely stiff before very slowly lowering his sword. Even more slowly, he stepped back and turned to face the Immies, wearing the perfectly controlled expression that Dilly knew was a bad sign.
"Eicys is back," he said blandly. "She brought him back with her." He strode away to stand strategically behind the group, so as to keep everyone in sight.
"It's not Ungrath," objected Tuima irritably. She gestured at the trees. "They're confused. If it were the orc, they would be angry, hostile. I've been spending half my time here just trying to stop them killing him." Taras grunted. Several of the girls looked up apprehensively at the tangled branches. Then there was a call from Eicys, and a moment later she and Ungrath appeared in a gap between two trees.
Silence settled slowly over the little group. A canteen slipped from Cebu's nerveless fingers and landed with an alarmingly loud noise amid Eicys' discarded armor, but no one even glanced over.
"Ungrath," hissed Eicys meaningfully. Her friend, lurking in the shadows in an unsuccessful attempt to remain unseen, drew back a little further. The Immies' eyes followed him. Eicys reached for his hand, but he jerked it away and sidled with extreme reluctance into the open clearing. He stood there, his shoulders hunched defensively and his expression one of embarrassed belligerence.
"Holy Hannah," muttered Dilly under her breath. She eyed the herbal tonic suspiciously, as though suspecting it of giving her hallucinations.
The hulking uruk of two days ago was barely recognizable. His skin was smooth and brown, and his features were much more regular, despite his rather desperate scowl. He was still dressed in a filthy, bloody orcish tunic - though it didn't fit him anymore - and the long matted hair was the same, as were subtle hints of his old appearance in posture and face. But overall he didn't look much worse than an acceptably ugly human. In fact, he looked a bit better.
He also looked hugely nervous. Eicys moved to stand close to him, and Ungrath, senses working in overdrive, felt his skin prickle with her nearness. He moved away hastily. He realized immediately that this was worse, but felt too monumentally stupid to risk stepping back again. She was looking at him encouragingly, though, and so Ungrath took a breath and forced out an awkward, "Um. Hello..." Even his voice was different. But there was a sense that the ice was breaking, or at least showing some hairline cracks.
"Uh, hi... Ungrath..." said Eredolyn, almost as brilliantly as he had. "Um... Is that really you?"
He nodded, shifting uncomfortably. There was a pregnant pause. It gave birth to a lot of little pauses, each more deeply embarrassing than its parent.
"Wow," Cebu said at last, with manic brightness. "Well... er, welcome back, Ungrath!" She gave him a smile which, to Ungrath's vast surprise, appeared more genuine and... sympathetic?...than frightened. He looked at her a little wildly. She shouldn't be acting nice to him: he'd scared her half to death back there by that pool! He wondered how much Eicys had explained to the Immies. None of them were reacting in the way he'd expected, not even Taras.
...In fact, the tark wasn't reacting at all.
The southern Prince stood quietly, with that trained stillness that made him almost invisible, his cool grey gaze flat and expressionless. The only visible sign of any tension was the sword still out of its sheath and resting comfortably in Taras' grip.
Ungrath glared. Eicys nudged him, and he jumped.
The Awkward Pauses were still breeding like mad, and the Immies' attempts at smiles were looking more strained by the minute. It had been a very, very long month for all of them, and they would have rather liked for something sensible to happen, like finding their way home and having a nice hot shower and a weeklong nap. Instead they were facing a huge and ugly person whom they barely knew, whom they would have liked to put at his ease but who apparently didn't have any ease to be put at.
In short, everyone was tired, confused, embarassed, and tense - and no one was more so than Ungrath himself.
"So..." A curious voice broke in at last, "...Are you an orc or a human?"
This, predictably, came from Wlore, who thought that "tact" was a mispronunciation of the word for riding equipment. Eredolyn elbowed her, and bruised her elbow on a jutting rib. Wlore was little more than a skeleton held together with skin, scars, and stubborn defiance. Right now she was peering at Ungrath through a curtain of tangled golden hair, looking very curious. If Ungrath was an orc she would continue to reluctantly hate him, because Wlore despised orcs with every fiber of her being. But if he was human, then she was free to admire him for having killed more orcs in one go than anyone she'd ever heard of. Such is the straightforward nature of an Eorling with a vendetta.
Ungrath looked lost. He stared at his hands, one fist curling and uncurling almost absently. Curiosity and tension were thick in the air, but no one seemed tenser than Eicys, who had fixed him with an odd expression and was biting nervously at her lower lip.
Ungrath looked up. "I'm not an orc," he said quietly, decisively.
Eicys beamed. Her friend was looking dazed and relieved, as though he'd finally caved in to some awful pressure and had discovered that everything was going to be all right after all. She felt tempted to hug him, but he probably would have just gone stiff and uncomfortable on her again.
"Oh, good," said Wlore stoutly, and there followed a murmur of gradually less awkward greetings until people were talking with relative normalcy again. One exception was Tuima, who never said much anyway and was currently occupied with staring in between Ungrath and the trees with an expression of bafflement, and consequently annoyance. Tuima hated being confused.
The other exception was Taras, who was still looking utterly calm but took his gaze off of Ungrath only once, to glance in the direction of Orthanc with a deeply suspicious gleam in his eyes. Ungrath had to be elbowed frequently for glaring at the Gondorian. That collected, mistrustful stare grated on his nerves more than jeers and insults would have done.
So he was glad for the opportunity to sit down and have a canteen half-full of watery, lumpy stew pressed on him - and not just because it meant he could keep his back to Taras. Ungrath had never felt so tired, and his muscles still trembled slightly with the memory of pain. He downed the stew in three swallows and sat with his head in his hands, feeling dizzy, exhausted, and content. If only the Immies would stop staring at him - or worse, asking questions. Eredolyn was the worst: she was insatiably curious and very clever. Ungrath fell back on his weariness and offered little more than grunts by way of replies.
"But Ungrath -" she began after asking about his unusual accent and receiving only a shrug for an answer. She stopped, and with her head on one side said absently, "You know, you don't really look much like an Ungrath anymore."
The erstwhile uruk's reaction was surprising. His eyes went wide and his shoulders went stiff. He muttered to Eicys, so quietly that only the sharp-eared Taras and Tuima could hear: "What did you tell them?"
"Not about that," Eicys reassured him equally quietly. If it were at all possible, Taras became even more still, every muscle tensed and a hard suspicion in his eyes.
For the others' benefit, Eicys clarified in a more normal voice, "She just meant the name Ungrath doesn't really fit you."
Ungrath was still flustered enough that he said what he was actually thinking: "Hah. Tha's not a name."
"What do you mean?" asked Eredolyn.
Eicys glanced at her friend and explained, "Ungrath... is a sort of nickname the other orcs gave him."
"What's it mean?" Eredolyn asked. Ungrath flinched and Eicys winced. "Oh," said Eredolyn. "That kind of nickname. What's your real name, then?"
Ungrath groaned inwardly. "I don' know. I've been Ungrath since Sar- for a long time. I can't remember any other name."
Saruman... Taras completed in his head. His loathing of the evil wizard was second only to his hatred for Maenadan. In the first few months, before Taras faded from notice and became a mere grey shadow haunting the corners of his lightless cell, Saruman would drag him out for questioning - and he hadn't been pleasant about it. Taras had very nearly died of his wounds from the ambush - the bloodstains were still visible on his ragged clothing and he wore a scar from sternum to spine, replete with the lumps where his broken ribs hadn't knitted back properly - and he had been very nearly insane at that point anyway. Simple brutality he probably could have handled, most likely through the inherited Númenorean gift that said he could choose his time of death... but that icy hypnotic voice, echoing relentlessly through the darkness as Taras lay nursing his wounds and his hatred...
"Taras?" Dilly murmured under cover of the Immies' appalled responses to Ungrath's revelation. "You all right?"
"Hm? Oh. Yes, I'm fine," said Taras. "Thank you." Ungrath was hiding something, and if it put them in danger - if there was any risk of their being dragged back to Orthanc...
"It's just that you're wearing that face that means serious trouble," Dilly informed him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I feel fine. But what about you? How's your shoulder?"
"I can't really feel it. I've gone all numb and sleepy - which is your fault, by the way. That drink was vile." She made a face.
"Something had to be done," he said with a tiny smile, "since bargaining hadn't worked."
"I wasn't going to sleep through Eicys' story!"
"Yes," he agreed quietly. "It was quite a story. I wonder how much of it was left out."
Dilly gave him a wary look. "You still don't trust him."
"I don't trust anyone unless they've given me a reason to do so."
"Sometimes not even then?" said Dilly shrewdly.
He paused for a long moment. "I was always a very good judge of character," he said slowly. "It has something to do with Númenorean blood, I think. My cousin Faramir - he's the Steward's younger son - is incredible at it; he can look right into a man's soul, it seems. I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if he and... and Maenadan... had met. I wonder what he would have seen." Taras looked pensive and bleak. "I didn't see anything."
Dilly opened her mouth to say something - she wasn't even entirely sure exactly what it would be - when Taras changed the subject, his eyes flicking back into the present moment. "What are they arguing about?"
Dilly listened. "I think they're trying to pick a new name for Ungrath," she said, and grinned slightly. "He looks a little overwhelmed, don't you think?"
Ungrath did indeed look overwhelmed. He listened with growing unease to the chaotic conversation crackling between the girls, which only grew more confusing as Dilly plunged in as well. They all seemed to have about the same attention span as your average butterfly: the discussion started with names but would range through the inconsequential (which usually led to long tangents), the inquisitive (which he was careful to avoid), and the incomprehensible (which seemed to be most common and included frequent mentions of someone with the bizarre name of Jayarrarrtolkin. Ungrath sincerely hoped that this wasn't one of the names they planned on picking for him). And then, suddenly, one of them would say, "Oh, right: names. Focus, people!" and off they'd go again, all of them talking at once and against all logic apparently able not only to keep track of what they themselves were saying, but also to throw in replies to others' conversations in the middle of sentences and occasionally even words.
Ungrath couldn't decide whether this ability was due to their being human, or foreign, or female. He suspected it was the latter, since Taras was still watching him silently, and both Tuima and Wlore were participating.
"Bob?" Tuima's voice rose incredulously above the others. "Who in Elbereth's name would ever be called Bob?"
"My dad's name is Bob," Eredolyn snapped.
"And he hasn't done anything about it?"
Eredolyn let out a growl worthy of their wargs, and turned her back. The chaos continued.
"Stop," said Taras suddenly. The word wasn't loud, but it had the effect of a drop of ink in clear water, spreading in coiling tendrils until there was utter silence. And then they all heard it: a distant voice, complaining indecipherably, coming towards them. It was accompanied by the snap and swish of someone unfamiliar with woodland trying to force their way through the tangled mass that was Fangorn Forest.
"Hide," hissed Taras. "Climb the trees." Tuima made a noise of protest. "What?" demanded Taras.
"Do you have any idea how rude that is?" she asked, Silvan to the core.
"No," he said. "Everybody get into a tree, now." He never raised his voice above that low command, but everyone was forcibly reminded that he was a prince, one of the highest-ranking Men in Middle-earth. His tone had confident authority etched into every syllable. There was a scramble for trees. Tuima was muttering frantically in Sindarin - presumably begging the trees' pardon. Or swearing. One could never be certain.
"Tuima!" said Taras in a fierce undertone. He jerked his head toward Ungrath, who was being held away from the line of trees by thrashing branches and coiling roots. Ungrath let out a guttural snarl of frustration, and several Immies winced. "At least ask them to let him past," Taras said, helping Dilly to her feet. To muffled but vehement protests, he then picked her up and handed her easily up to Eredolyn, who was already clinging to a creaking, groaning tree of her own.
"I can climb a tree!" Dilly told him ferociously, but he wasn't paying attention.
"Tuima!" he insisted.
The Elf began talking quietly and rapidly, and at last the tree quieted again - though not before clipping Ungrath sharply on the side of his head so that he almost fell over. He snarled again.
"Get out!" Tuima hissed at him. The voice was coming closer. "Go away!" Ungrath scowled uncertainly. "Go!" she reiterated. Ungrath turned and shoved his way into the undergrowth. Tuima whirled around to scale Dilly and Eredolyn's tree with obnoxious ease. By now the complainer's voice was much clearer, and sounding indignant and weary by turns.
"Where's Taras?" whispered Eredolyn, who was keeping a firm but surreptitious grip on the back of Dilly's shirt. There is no doubt that she would have gotten thoroughly chewed out for this if her friend had been fully coherent, but Dilly was groggy, achey, and numb, and had been staying awake for the past few hours by dint of sheer stubbornness.
"There," Tuima whispered back. "In the brush."
"I can't see - "
"Will you be quiet?"
"Jerk," Eredolyn muttered inaudibly. Tuima gave her an acid glare.
"Ssh, he's coming..." warned Wlore.
"You ought to be in a bloody loony bin, you know that?" the voice was saying in a strong British accent. Eredolyn could make out someone awkwardly shoving their way through the undergrowth, trailed by a faint, noiseless shadow. "I mean, I understand the whole fanatic thing, but it's ridiculous this is. It's been almost two days, you're going to have the police after - Ow! Rhegi. Look, couldn't you at least get rid of the stupid rope? It's not like I'm gonna try anything while you're pointing that thing at me, okay? Oh, for the love of - Now what do you hear?"
There was an explosion of leaves, a flash of steel, and a feminine shout. And then the nameless complainer said, "Oh."
Eredolyn at last got a decent look at the scene before her. A boy only a little older than herself was standing very still. He had tousled dark hair, a sweatshirt with the odd logo Cymru am Byth! and a pleasant, open face, which was very dirty. He also had his hands tied tightly in front of him, and Taras' sword at his throat.
Obviously, things were not going well for this kid.
He was staring at Taras and the long Elven blade hovering just above his sweatshirt collar. But Taras wasn't looking at him: he was focused on the beautiful blonde girl who had a nocked arrow pointed directly between his eyes. For a moment, there was dead silence.
Then Tuima shrieked, "Linsul!"
A startled movement from three people very nearly cost two of them their lives. But Tuima was already out of the tree and running towards them. The blonde girl dropped bow and arrow and shouted something in Elvish of which the only comprehensible word was Tuima's name, and then the two of them were hugging and smiling and babbling in Sindarin at a hundred miles a minute.
The Immies were stunned. After a minute, Eredolyn realized that she should have noticed the little signs: the flowing hair, the perfect complexion, the otherworldly grace... the irritated, ignored mortal tagging alongside. Yep, definitely an Elf.
The irritated, ignored mortal in question was looking rather more so, despite the fact that Taras' sword had dropped away from his throat.
"What the heck is going on here?" he demanded. "Who are you people?" No one paid him the slightest attention.
"Tuima?" asked Cebu, trying to figure out a way to get out of her tree (besides the obvious and most direct method). "Who is this?"
Tuima turned, wearing a smile that lit the forest. "This is my sister, Linsul."
Eredolyn, halfway out of her own tree, slipped and landed hard on her backside. She barely noticed. "You have a sister?" she asked. The tied-up boy looked equally shocked and horrified.
"You don't look alike," he accused the two Elves, as though hoping he could prove that they weren't related after all.
"We take after different parents," said Tuima absently, her words sandwiched in a stream of Elvish. If gestures and facial expressions were anything to go by, Tuima was sliding between emotions at an appreciable fraction of light speed. Her sister wore a constant, tiny smile, grey eyes gleaming with mirth and relief. Eredolyn noticed that the newcomer's hair wasn't blonde after all - it was silver, with the faintest undertone of gold. She had the same achingly beautiful, angular face as her sister, but more delicate and merry, and the queer long-limbed grace of the Elves had a sprightly feel in Linsul. In a word, she was gorgeous. She fit every cherished idea of an Elf.
Still, though, she shared with Tuima that otherworldly feel that was a bit eerie. If you looked properly, you would never need pointed ears to tell you that the two of them weren't human. It had something in common, perhaps, with the fact that they were both beautiful - but not exactly attractive. It wasn't something you could describe.
"Hey, well, look - I'm glad you two are so happy to see each other and all, but could someone please for the love of St. David and all that is holy tell me what the uffern is going on here?!"
The Immies looked at each other. Dilly slid out of her tree with one arm clenched awkwardly to her chest and landed upright only because Taras materialized out of nowhere to take her arm. "Um... have you heard of the Lord of the Rings?" she asked as she disentangled a twig from her hair.
"Of course," he said. "Crazy woman there" - he nodded at Linsul - "seems to think she's in it. Is this some sort of role-playing game or something?"
"Ah... No. Unfortunately." The boy looked puzzled. Dilly gestured to the dense, gloomy woodland. "Welcome to Fangorn Forest," she said.
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