When Taras finally heard the footsteps coming back, it was all he could do to stop himself trying to break the door down again. The backs of his fists were still bleeding from his earlier attack on it, when they had dragged Dilly away to… He had no idea; that was the worst part. He craned his neck, peering down the corridor, and felt limp with relief: she was walking, she couldn’t have been hurt… Please, Valar, don’t let her be…
He gripped the bars of the little window set in his door, and watched anxiously as Dilly was hauled roughly down the corridor. Upon reaching her cell, the biggest orc unlocked the door, pulled it wide, and kicked Dilly inside. Taras snarled curses inwardly and gripped his bars even tighter, holding himself in until the orcs had disappeared around a corner.
“Dilly! Dilly, are you all right?” She didn’t answer. “Are you hurt? Did they…” He trailed off, but she was still silent. Taras swallowed urgently. “Dilly!”
“I’m fine, Taras.”
“I said I’m fine.”
Taras stopped, startled. Dilly had never acted like this before. “What happened?”
He realized his mouth was open and shut it. “But…”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I really don’t feel like talking right now, okay? Sorry…”
“Um,” Taras said. “All… all right.” He ran a hand through his hair. What must have happened? He started pacing, stopped himself, stood helplessly for a long, long, moment, then kicked his door violently. He glared at it for a minute, then kicked it again.
There was an awkward, painful silence.
“…What was that?” asked Dilly.
“Er, nothing,” said Taras. After another silence, he said – mainly for the sake of saying something – “Kicked my door, is all.”
“Did it make you feel better?” Dilly asked. He couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
“Well… er, sort of.” He hesitated. “No.”
Dilly sighed a little, and then Taras didn’t hear from her again for almost an hour.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ungrath was feeling thoroughly confused, and a little put-upon. “Why’m I doin’ this again?” he asked, scowling at Eicys.
Three weeks ago, the sight of that hideous face glaring at her would have sent Eicys scurrying for the nearest thing to hide behind. Now, though, she only grinned up at him and teased: “What’s the matter? Are you scared they might make you smell decent?”
“We ain’t s’posed teh be here,” Ungrath said, glancing nervously around Saruman’s herb garden. The sharp scents seared the back of his throat, dragging up unpleasant memories of a dark room, a bitter taste, pain… “I don’ like this place,” he growled.
“Well I think it’s wonderful to see growing things again,” said Eicys, clipping a few leaves from a low shrub. “It’s so – friendly.”
“These plants ain’t friendly,” Ungrath spat.
Eicys paused, glancing around. “They do seem kinda… unpleasant, don’t they?”
Ungrath folded his massive arms. “Ken we go, then?”
“Just a minute. The book said there’s one with long spiky leaves and yellow flowers…”
“What’re yeh plannin’ on doin’ with this stuff, anyway?” he asked. Eicys glanced around nervously, then got on tiptoe and whispered in his ear.
Ungrath jerked away. “Yer doin’ what?” he cried.
“Sshh!” Eicys hissed. “I have to, so I can break my friends out of the dungeon.”
“Oh, righ’, just break yer friends outta the dungeon. An’ then ye’ll simply waltz outta Orthanc under the noses of several hundred orcs, an’ hope that Sharkey don’ wake up too soon.” He ran a claw through his matted black hair. “Yeh got a death wish or somethin’, Eicys?”
“No,” she said stiffly. “We do have a plan, you know.”
“What kinda plan yeh got that yeh think’ll outsmart Sharkey?”
“You know… something really simple. Like… um… Me and you will just pretend we’re taking them somewhere, under guard you know, and march them out. Or… we could pretend they’re dead and we’re taking them out to bury them.”
“We don’ bury pris’ners.”
“Then what do you -” Scenes from The Two Towers about orc eating habits flashed through Eicys’ mind. “Oh,” she said, feeling nauseous. “Ugh.”
“You don’ have a plan at all, do yeh?”
Eicys wilted slightly. “No,” she admitted in a small voice. Then she drew herself up. “But I’ll think of something. And the potion is a good idea, don’t you think?”
“I bet it won’ work on wizards. I think it’ll jest make `im mad.”
“That’s a morbid thought,” she commented.
Ungrath smiled faintly. “Hark at yeh callin’ me morbid when yer gatherin’ poison.”
“Poison?” Eicys looked down at the herbs in her hands. “These are for a sleeping draught.” At Ungrath’s confused expression, she clarified: “For Saruman, remember?”
“Yer not gonna kill `im?”
“Of course not!” Eicys shuddered.
“Why not?” Ungrath snarled. “He deserves it.”
“Yeah, but – but – I couldn’t kill anyone…” Eicys trailed off, remembering the horrible struggle for her life in Fangorn. “In cold blood,” she finished, and shuddered again.
Ungrath bit a thin black lip and stared down at his claws. If she knew…
But that wasn’ my fault! he thought desperately. Saruman…
Yeh think that matters teh people like that? a harsh thought returned. Yer an orc. Yer a murderer. Learn to live wi’ it.
“No,” Ungrath muttered fiercely.
“Glad you agree,” Eicys said in relieved tones. Ungrath jerked his eyes to hers guiltily, nodded, and stared at his claws again, hating himself. He wished he could get away from the smell of herbs.
After a long while, Eicys looked up at Ungrath. He had been so quiet that she was beginning to worry. He had opened up so much in the last week or so, but now he seemed angry, or nervous. It was hard to tell with orcs.
At last, she ventured, “Um – Ungrath? You okay?” He nodded distractedly. “Oh. Um…” She stuffed the last of the herbs into a sack she’d brought. When she looked at him again, his weird brown eyes were still distant and agitated. She straightened and put her hands on her hips. “No, you’re not,” she snapped.
He jumped, then glared at her. Eicys ignored it. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Ungrath would have stared at the ground, but Eicys was in the way. “Nothin’,” he said, examining the ceiling.
“Don’t give me that,” Eicys scolded. “Something’s been eating at you for almost half an hour. What’s wrong?”
“Ken we get outta here?” he pled.
She looked at him, puzzled, then jerked her head toward the entrance. “Is that all?”
“Um,” he said. “Yes.”
“You know what? You are a really rotten liar,” Eicys commented as they left. “Now, what else?”
“Nothin’,” he said shortly, and Eicys looked suspicious but left him alone. Ungrath silently sighed his relief. What was he supposed to say – `I don’t want you to go, stay here with me’? Stupid, stupid, stupid. He curled his big hands into fists and strode ahead.
“Where are you going?” Eicys asked, almost running to keep up.
“I have… guard duty,” he growled, and banged through the door at the end of the hallway, leaving Eicys to stare after him, worried and confused.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Dilly broke the silence first. “Um, Taras?” she said in a low, embarassed mutter.
“Yes?” he said quickly.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, relieved. “But… Dilly, please tell me what happened.”
She sighed. “`Eredolyn happened,’ as Tuima put it.”
“Who? Oh, your friends.”
“Maybe,” she said bitterly. “I don’t think Eredolyn wants any friends. Just books. And Saruman.”
Taras moved closer to the bars. “Saruman?”
Dilly sighed. “He’s gotten to her somehow. It was awful!”
“What happened?” Taras asked again.
Dilly told him. Taras listened in sober silence. “What can I do?” she asked, frustration plain in her voice.
“Not much,” he said sadly. Dilly sighed again, and Taras groped around for something to say to take her mind off Eredolyn. But for some stupid reason the only thing he could think of was the information about her loose bars. The old debate resurfaced in his mind: What Dilly would try if he told her? If she was killed…
I ought to tell her, he thought. I owe her that much.
The silence grew more and more awkward and miserable. Taras took a deep breath. Just tell her! He swallowed, took another breath, and opened his mouth.
“Hey, Taras,” she said awkwardly, and he jumped. She continued in a would-be cheerful voice, obviously trying to patch up the painful silence: “Do you have any more of those stories about your old tutor? I think we could both use a laugh.”
“Oh – um, sure,” he said, caught off balance. A weird mixture of guilt and relief washed over him, but he pushed it aside and began. “Er… Let’s see. Oh. Well, there was a day when I was about thirteen…”
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Psst – Tuima!”
“Hello, Eicys,” said Tuima without turning around. She had her long fingers jammed into a crack in the wall, and was straining to pry one of the stones loose. “Wait a moment…” She set one foot against the wall and tugged. “Come out, come out… Ha!”
The stone pulled free and clattered to the floor. Tuima turned around, flexing her fingers and wincing, to see Eicys stuffing a little sack through the bars of her cell door. “You found the herbs, then?” she said eagerly.
“Yup,” said Eicys. “Hope this is enough.”
Tuima pulled the bag of herbs the rest of the way through. “Mmm,” she said, breahing deeply of the sharp, wild scent. Suddenly she choked, then held the bag out at arm’s length. “Ouch,” she said weakly.
“What’s wrong?” Eicys asked. “Are they the right ones?”
“Yes, but – ai! These are strong, and very…”
“Unpleasant?” said Eicys. “I didn’t like them either. They seemed to – watch me, while I was picking.”
“Hostile,” the elf agreed. She wrinkled her nose. “Well, best we can do. Thank you, Eicys. You’ve done so much.”
Eicys shrugged unhappily. “But I still can’t find my sister. And I didn’t get to Eredolyn in time…” And I made Ungrath upset about something, she didn’t add.
Tuima’s face tightened. “Hopefully we can all escape before Curunir gets anything significant out of her.” The two girls shared a somber moment.
“Maybe we should try again,” Eicys said. “You know, maybe if she had something to think about besides Saruman and her books…”
“Perhaps,” Tuima said thoughtfully. “But I don’t think she’ll call for us again.” She colored faintly. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that…”
“Not your fault,” Eicys reassured her. “It sounds like she was pretty aggravating.”
Tuima colored deeper, but with anger this time. “She said we were just jealous! And ignorant, and selfish, and -“
“Tuima!” Eicys scolded.
Tuima looked at the floor, blushing to the tips of her ears. Literally.
That’s a new one, Eicys thought. “Listen,” she said. “I’ll see what I can do…maybe I could smuggle Dilly up to see her again. They were best friends back home.”
Tuima nodded. “Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said eagerly. Then her sense of Aloof Responsible Elf seemed to kick back in, and she said sternly, “But be careful.”
Eicys crammed her helmet further over eyes and gave her friend a smile that was pure Ungrath. Tuima shuddered appreciatively. And that, Eicys reflected, did not say much for Ungrath’s chances when she finally got around to introducing him.
* * * * * * * * * * *
After an hour or so of conversation, Taras and Dilly were feeling almost normal again. Taras had even gotten a laugh out of his companion with his story about his and Lothiriel’s botched attempt to sabotage their lessons.
“Ink is very stubborn,” Taras protested. “Lothiriel honestly thought it would never come out. Our clothes were ruined, of course, and our hair…” he made a face. “Lothiriel left black smudges everywhere she went for a week. I just cut mine off – but I was sad to loose it. It was almost as long as my father’s.” He considered. “Though not so long as it is now.”
“Vanity, Taras?” Dilly asked.
“No,” he said, pretending to be affronted. “I don’t have anything to cut it.”
“Of course,” Dilly agreed with good-natured sarcasm. “Then how do you keep your beard so short?”
“Oh, sure, rub it in,” Taras said. It was a phrase he’d learned from Dilly.
“Rub what in?” she asked.
“The fact that I can’t grow a decent beard even after three years without a razor.”
Dilly smiled. “You do have a beard. It’s just a little… straggly.”
“Straggly?” Taras demanded in outraged tones. He fought down the grin that quirked the edges of his mouth. “Straggly?”
Dilly laughed. Taras beamed at the sound. Determined to get another laugh out of her, he stroked his chin pompously and said, “By the standards of Dol Amroth this so-called `straggly’ beard could rival any old patriarch’s.”
“Don’t they have beards in Gondor?”
“They say,” Taras said thoughtfully, “that the men of Dol Amroth have Elven blood.”
“What’s that got to do with beards?” Dilly asked.
“When did you last see a bearded Elf?”
Dilly laughed delightedly, then pretended to consider. “Well, since the only Elf I’ve ever seen is Tuima…” She laughed even harder at the mental image, but Taras stopped, wary.
“Your friend Tuima is an Elf?”
“There are all sorts of stories about the Firstborn… enchantments, snares… They seem fair, but they cannot be trusted.” Taras scowled deeply.
Dilly hesitated. “You don’t warm up to people very quickly, do you?”
“I’ve learned my lesson,” he said shortly. “You shouldn’t trust just anyone.”
“Does this have anything to do with… with your friend?”
“Maenadan?” Taras spat the name so bitterly that Dilly almost flinched. “I would sooner call an orc my friend than that traitor.”
“But what happened?”
He shrugged and turned away.
“You were going to tell me earlier!” Dilly said. “You can’t let it keep eating at you like this.” Then, seeing him still hesitate, she said carefully, “Please, Taras. Trust me.”
Taras stiffened. On second thought, Dilly realized, that might not have been the best choice of words. But the Gondorian stood up straight, staring into space for a moment, and at last he said, “I told you he was my friend. I never had many; it was mostly my sister – Lothiriel – that I confided in. But I loved Maenadan like a brother.” His voice deepened with disgust and fury. “Until the night he handed me over to the orcs.”
And slowly, painfully, the whole tale came out: Maenadan’s worming his way into the family, his mysterious disappearance that night in Rohan, the orc attack…
“They were everywhere,” Taras said, “and none of us were prepared. The horses were almost crazy; they ran off right away. We all fought like mad, even Lothiriel, and Eomer was scything down dozens of the things until he had his leg sliced open and went down, with Lothiriel guarding him. The orcs came between us, and I didn’t think about that either… I was just glad they seemed to be coming after me instead of my sister. I took off running, and the whole pack of them followed me. I think Lothiriel tried to follow too, but Eomer was holding her back and yelling that it wouldn’t do any good for her to get killed as well. Everything was dark and screaming and blood: I don’t remember much.
“And then one of them caught me in the side” – he traced the long scar with one finger – “and I went down. It was about to kill me when he showed up. He told them to stay back, and I realized… what he’d done…” Taras took a shuddering breath. “He gave me the most awful smile, gloating about who was my father’s favorite now, and how he was going to inherit everything, and how – how my sister – he would -” Taras choked.
“Well. I think I lost it then. I started hacking orcs apart left and right, just trying to get to him, but I never even touched him. I woke up in this pit,” he waved bitterly, “and I’ve been rotting here ever since. Maenadan needed me alive, to blackmail Lothiriel, and this was the only place – but Saruman doesn’t give favors for free. Maenadan convinced him that I could be used as a sort of insurance, if the war went ill…” He trailed off, lost in black thoughts.
Dilly’s eyes were wide as she tried to think of something, anything, to say. “Oh, wow…” she said at last, in a very small voice.
Taras realized his nails were biting into his palm, and slowly unclenched his fists. He hadn’t meant to say so much, but it was a relief to have finally told someone. His breathing was ragged and harsh in the silence. After a long moment, he gulped down tears and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want – I -” He scrubbed furiously at his face with one fist. “Sorry,” he said again, lamely.
Dilly reached through her bars, uselessly. Her arm withdrew and she let out a long breath. “Oh, Taras,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
Taras tried a laugh: it came out strangled and short. “It’s all right,” he said. “I try not to think about it. There’s nothing I can do, anyway.”
The two of them fell into a miserable quiet, until Eicys said fiercely, “Yes, there is.”
He looked up, startled.
“We’re getting out of here, Taras. I don’t care what it takes; we’re going to get out of this place. Eicys and Tuima are already working on a potion to put Saruman out of it for a while, and Eicys says she’s been hiding supplies, and weapons. Any day now, we’ll get our chance, and we are going to escape, Taras, no matter what!”