Taras stopped pacing abruptly. He could hear someone coming toward him down the corridor. He strained his ears: the endless choking silence of prison had sharpened his hearing, and he could make out… an uruk – two uruks – and a female voice, probably the prisoner. Must be one of that group he’d heard earlier. He peered uselessly through the barred window set in his cell door, craning his neck for the sight of something – anything – new to think about. His mind was sick and fatigued with worrying at the same thoughts and fears over and over.
He could just make out the three figures: two hulking orcs and a smaller outline between them, struggling wildly. Suddenly the prisoner went limp. Taras pressed closer to the bars, trying to see what had happened – his eyes went wide. It had been a trick; the prisoner hurled herself at one of her captors. There was a brief scuffle, then the girl was hurtling away from the guards, down the corridor toward Taras.
His fists clenched the bars convulsively. The girl was small-boned, with a pale, dirty face and beautiful long dark hair – “Lothiriel!” he gasped. She ran desperately, one hand cradled against her as if in pain. She had almost reached his cell when an uruk caught up with her; he threw out a hand and caught a fistful of her hair. She shrieked as her head snapped backwards, and she would have landed flat on her back if the orc hadn’t kept his hold. Gasping with pain, she scrambled frantically to get her feet back under her.
Taras abruptly realized he was shouting. More than shouting, he was screaming challenges and oaths, lunging at his enormous heavy door in a mindless effort to get to that orc. “Get away from her, you misbegotten swine – if you touch my sister again, I swear before all the Valar that I’ll rip your putrid head from your body, let go of her now!” he yelled in an almost demented rage, bruising himself against the unyielding wood and iron.
The uruk sneered something in the Black Speech and kicked his captive into the cell across from Taras, laughing obscenely. He joined his companion, whose nose was bleeding copiously from the girl’s attack, and together they stumped away down the hall, Taras hurling insults and challenges after them and nearly pulling his bars from their sockets.
From across the hall, he heard movements. He stopped shouting immediately. “Lothiriel?” he asked desperately. “Are you all right? What are you doing here?” She moaned. “Lothiriel?” Taras asked again, frantic. Oh, Valar, let her be all right, it’s all my fault if she came looking for me, please don’t let her be…
“What?” she asked groggily. “I mean, no. My name isn’t Lothiriel.”
Taras blinked stupidly, a strange mix of disappointment and relief rushing through him. He sagged against his door, panting a little as the adrenaline subsided. “Who are you, then?”
“Um,” she panted, making little pained hissing noises. “Oohhh. My name’s Dilly. Who’re you? And who’s – ouch – sorry – Lothiriel?”
“She’s my sister. I’m – sorry, you look like her, I thought – Well if she were here it would be – and I saw those orcs treating her – I mean you -” Taras realized he was babbling. “I got mad,” he finished lamely.
“I could tell,” Dilly said wryly, ending on a faint gasp of pain. There were more sounds of movement, and a hand gripped the little window set in her door. A face followed, framed in rich, dark hair that was almost lost in the gloom. Dilly smiled crookedly at Taras as he peered through his own small window at her. She was very pretty, and Taras absurdly wished he’d had some way to get rid of his matted hair and beard. Dilly regarded him strangely. “What did you say your name was?”
“Taras,” he said, then realized that it was usual to provide somewhat more than that. “Formerly of Dol Amroth,” he added belatedly and rather bitterly.
“…Formerly?” Dilly asked.
There was a pause. “I’ve been in here almost three years now,” he said, and the interminable misery of that statement washed grimly over both of them.
“Three years,” breathed Dilly at last.
Taras looked up at her, feeling the beginnings of a strange feeling in his chest. He began to realize what it meant to have someone here – someone to talk to. No more silence, no more restless pacing in the darkness, someone to laugh and sing with… Taras bit his lip with the potency of the new feeling, and clutched at his prison bars like a lifeline. “Don’t worry,” he said, joy and relief choking his voice. “It won’t be nearly so bad now with – with someone else here. I am very glad to meet you, Lady Dilly.”
She laughed a little, and Taras jumped at the sound. “Pleased to meet you too, Taras… although the circumstances leave something to be desired.”
“Trust me, my lady, they are infinitely more desirable since being graced with your fair presence,” he answered with happy gallantry. She rubbed two fingers against her face, which was streaked with blood and grime, and snorted in a way unbecoming of a fair and graceful lady. Taras was reminded again of his sister; he grinned at her and was puzzled when she blushed.
“So,” he said, happiness welling through his veins, “How did you end up down here?”
She hesitated. “It’s a long story,” she said.
“Are you doing anything else?”
She considered, teasing. “No, I think I can squeeze in some time,” she said, and began:
“Well, me and some friends – we call ourselves the Immies, after the Immortal Four, you know, because we’re presidents of the Tolkien club at school -” she trailed off. Taras was looking blank.
“Um, well, anyway, the Immies and I have been reading this story…” As Dilly’s strange tale unfolded, Taras felt she was trying desperately to tone down the bizarre nature of the whole thing; several times she had to pause and search for words he would understand.
Despite everything, though, at the end of her story there was a very long, very confused silence. “Oh,” said Taras at last.
“Hey, I know it sounds nuts,” Dilly protested. “It seems just as crazy to me, too.”
Taras nodded uncertainly. After a pause, he asked warily, “Ah – have you been talking to Saruman, by any chance?”
“Yes, just got back,” Dilly said, shivering a little at the memory.
He drew back from his barred window uncertainly. “Uh, nothing,” he said hastily, narrowing his eyes at her. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go to sleep now.”
Dilly looked hurt and confused. “Oh… ok, I guess. Well, `bye, then.”
Taras nodded and withdrew into the darkness of his cell, berating himself silently. Stupid, he thought. Falling all over with joy at a companion when I don’t know anything about her. He glanced up at his window, remembering her face, and couldn’t quite believe she was working for Saruman. She was probably still just bewitched, from talking to the wizard. He would have to be careful until she started making more sense, that’s all: he would be sure not to speak of anything that he didn’t want Saruman to know. It would be hard – the taste of words was still new and intoxicating on his tongue, and he was desperately lonely. But – Remember what happened last time you trusted someone too quickly, he reminded himself fiercely, and this time, he didn’t push away the memory of Maenadan’s leering face. He’d spent so much time trying to avoid remembering, but now he welcomed the crowding images, setting them carefully in order, from the time Maenadan first entered Lord Imrahil’s household…
Maenadan… laughing… talking and joking together… Maenadan flirting with Lothiriel… Taras’ father beaming with approval…
“Why don’t you like him, `Riel?” Taras asked his sister, only half-teasing.
“He’s just… I don’t trust him – He’s too…” She threw up her hands and laughed in exasperation. “I’m not sure why, really.”
And Taras had been confused, and his father as well. Prince Imrahil was very proud of his new captain; Maenadan was so handsome and clever. But he and his son both doted on Lothiriel, and if she didn’t love the dashing soldier…
“It’s time she settled down. The times are bad; war is coming. I would rest easier if she were married, and had someone to care for her,” Imrahil said. “Perhaps I should send you both to Rohan – she has always enjoyed the land of the horse-lords…”
“One horse-lord in particular,” Taras said slyly, and they both laughed, and Taras and his sister had begun preparations for a journey to the Golden Hall.
Maenadan offered to accompany them…
Taras jerked himself away from the memory, the familiar hopeless fury welling in his chest. Enough! He had learned his lesson well. He would not think – he would not remember –
He leapt to his feet and began pacing again. But his thoughts would not leave him alone; they plucked insistently at his mind, showing him Dilly’s face. Someone to talk to…
He began to wonder whether he had been rude. If she was merely bewildered by Saruman’s spell, he shouldn’t have acted so suspicious. He thought about getting up and apologizing, but pride and lingering suspicion kept him quiet. He would try again in an hour or so, and hope that she was recovered. Taras settled against a wall, suppressing his excitement, wondering what they could safely talk about…
After an eternity of deafening silence, he stood up again, staring carefully into the gloom beyond his window-bars.
“Ah – Lady Dilly?” he ventured. He didn’t know if she was really a lady, but it couldn’t hurt. “I think I owe you an apology.”
“No,” she sighed, and he could hear her getting up. She peered through the bars at him. “I know it’s a crazy story. It scared Wlore, too, I think.”
“You know Wlore?” Taras asked delightedly.
“Yeah, we were in a cell together for a while. How do you know her?”
“She was imprisoned down the hall several months ago. We would shout back and forth until the orcs heard and took her back to the kitchens.” He shook his head. “I honestly can’t imagine her as a servant, however hard I try.”
“Me neither,” Dilly grinned. “She was in with me for beating up a character from Coralie’s story, of all the crazy coincidences. I saw the girl – Drysi – after our audience with Saruman… Two black eyes, and so mad!”
“Wlore went with you to see Saruman?” Taras asked cautiously. Now he could find out just what had gone on in that interview, and how careful he would have to be.
“Yes, there was me, Wlore, and all the other Immies except Eicys.” She sighed bleakly. “We still don’t know what happened to Eicys… Cebu said she might be dead. I – I’m really worried about her. And about Eredolyn, too: Saruman focused everything on her. Hardly even spoke to the rest of us.”
Taras nodded sympathetically, scratching at his maddening beard. “So – he didn’t address you personally, then?” he asked, unable to help himself.
“No,” said Dilly curiously. Suddenly she laughed. “Oh, that’s what this is about? You think I’m under his spell or something?”
“You can’t be too careful,” said Taras stiffly, but he was almost dancing with relief. “And after that story – “
Dilly nodded resignedly. “But think about it – If Saruman sent me, would he give me such a ridiculous story to tell you? Coming from the future, or another world, or whatever? Or if it were just me, trying to tell lies, do you think I’d come up with such a stupid one?”
“I guess not,” Taras conceded, finally convinced. He was still inclined to attribute a lot of Dilly’s story to her being knocked on the head by orcs, but he felt confident he could trust her now – at least a little. He never planned on trusting anyone fully again, after Maenadan. He looked up, smiling, and saw Dilly’s dark head bent over. She was fumbling with something. “What are you doing?” he asked.
She glanced up at him. “I’m trying to bandage my hand. Kinda awkward.”
He remembered she was hurt. “What happened to it?”
“Oh,” she laughed a little, embarassed, and Taras jumped again. It had been so long since he’d heard anyone laugh. “I – I punched one of the orcs and forgot to leave out the thumb. Honestly, my best friend’s a black belt and I can’t even remember the right way to make a fist.”
“A black belt?”
Dilly laughed again. “I keep forgetting. Sorry. That just means she’s really good at beating people up.”
Taras raised his eyebrows. “Women in Middle Earth have been acting very strangely of late,” he muttered.
“Hey, I told you, we’re not from around here,” Dilly reminded him. She bent her head again over her hand, trying to tie off her bandage with her teeth. “So, how did you end up in this place?” she asked through a mouthful of cloth.
With dreamlike horror and a weird sense of unreality, Taras ran and turned to fight and ran again, knowing as he bled and staggered and thrust that at least he had saved his sister and his friend, and knowing too that he was going to die.
At last an orc managed a crippling blow: he felt a sort of crunching on his side, and stumbled. The pain and the orc hit him at the same time, driving him to the ground. Agony lanced from his ribs all the way to his skull, and the orc loomed over him, grotesque against the starry sky, raising his weapon, higher, Taras convulsed and helpless with pain –
The orc brought his scimitar down, and met Maenadan’s sword with a jarring clang. Taras’ friend heaved upwards and the orc staggered back; Taras was crumpled by his feet, gasping with relief and hurt. “Maenadan…”
Maenadan looked down disdainfully, and placed his sword at Taras’ throat. Taras could only stare. “Mae -” The sword pressed closer, and its bearer was smiling. The orcs hung back, jostling and jeering. “What are you doing?” Taras cried, and the orcs caught his words and yelled them back mockingly: “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
“This,” said Maenadan, and kicked Taras in the ribs, where the blood was spreading steadily. Taras doubled up, white-hot pain clawing its way through his body, hurting too much even to scream. Maenadan leaned down and grabbed his hair. “What do you have to say now, Taras? Father Imrahil’s favorite? Oh, how I’ve longed to do this. Always so lordly and laughing, so condescending to the new captain – what do you have to say now?” He released Taras’ hair and stood again, his blade tracing raw lines across Taras’ throat.
“Why?” Taras gasped.
Maenadan spat at him. “If you need to ask, you are stupider even than I thought. For everything that is good in life, everything that you had and took for granted while those more deserving lived in squalor. For the inheritance of a prince of Dol Amroth.”
“You won’t… Lothiriel…My father would never…” Taras spoke through a haze of pain. “It goes to my sister if I die.”
“On the contrary,” Maenadan sneered. “It goes to your sister’s husband.” He waited a moment for that to sink in, and when it did, Taras howled and would have lunged, but met the sword tip at his throat.
“She’ll never marry you,” Taras snarled, such hatred in his eyes that Maenadan stepped back, startled. But he just as quickly leaned forward again, realizing Taras’ helplessness.
“Oh, I think she will,” he said with quiet malice. “Especially when she learns that her brother’s life depends upon her doing so.” Maenadan smiled into the look of dawning horror on Taras’ face. “Don’t worry, my friend,” he leered. “I’ll take good care of little Lothiriel.”
“Taras?” Dilly asked again, watching him worriedly. “Taras!”
He jumped and met her eyes, then looked away again quickly, her face wavering in and through the memory.
“I – I’d rather not …” he stammered, trying to get a grip on himself. “I’m sorry – I don’t… don’t like to remember that story…”
“It’s all right,” she told him, still looking anxious. “Don’t worry about it.”
Taras nodded haltingly, shaking the images from his mind. He would not think about that any more, he had something else now to think about, instead of replaying that horrible night over and over in his mind. He tried to listen to Dilly, knowing she was talking to give him time to recover. He was grateful for it, but angry at himself for being so obvious.
Still, after several minutes he was himself again – or as much of himself as remained after that night, and the endless nights that followed it. Taras had learned his lesson well indeed: he would not soon trust anyone again.