Saruman’s steward, one of the few human servants he still kept in Orthanc, fidgeted anxiously as he relayed the news of Dilly and Eredolyn’s conversation to his master. “I do not believe this Eredolyn called for her friend at all. And the friend behaved most suspiciously, always hinting at Eredolyn and speaking of things beyond my comprehension.”
Saruman frowned, shifting his grip on his staff. “I am at a delicate stage in my dealings with that girl. This could ruin everything. Too much of my time has been wasted already. If she knows the whereabouts of the …object I seek, I must have the information from her immediately.” His fingers clenched around the staff. “Today,” he said decisively. “I must have it this afternoon.” He fixed the steward with a cold dark stare. “Prepare a meal for two. I will have luncheon with `Lady’ Eredolyn today.”
His servant bowed deeply, then ventured: “My Lord? What of her friend? Her visit was very strange: if Eredolyn did not call for her, how did she get out of her cell?”
The wizard considered. “I do not know how much Eredolyn knows of her friends’ conditions or whereabouts, but I would rather she remain ignorant. Move the elf and the two girls to different cells. Move that Wlore girl as well.” The servant’s bow dipped a little lower, and then stopped at Saruman’s interruption: “On second thought, just take them to the questioners now. If I don’t get an answer from Eredolyn today, I never will. No sense in wasting time with the others.”
The steward smiled unpleasantly, bobbed one final bow, and hurried from the room, heading for the dungeons.
* * * * * * * *
“Dilly!” Taras shouted. “Dilly, wake up!”
Dilly jerked awake from her nap, smudging the sleep out of her eyes. “Wha?” she mumbled.
“Someone’s coming, you’ve got to get out of here – use the bars!”
“What?” she asked, coming more awake. “What are you smoking, Taras?”
Taras looked about distractedly for the fire. “It doesn’t matter. Dilly, hurry, please, trust me. The bars, in that window in your cell door, they’re loose.”
Dilly struggled to her feet. “What? How do you know? What’s going on?”
His voice was haggard. “I heard them just now – the orcs, while you were sleeping – something’s gone wrong and they’re supposed to round up you and your friends… for questioning…” Dilly’s head snapped up. She crossed to her door in a single step, closed both fists around a bar and began tugging.
“There’s been some sort of problem,” Taras was saying.
“Someone’s escaped… Hurry! Twist it a little as you pull.”
“But that servant said that Saruman wouldn’t bother with us unless Eredolyn – “
“Forget Eredolyn! Pull!”
The bar in her hand rasped and clanged and Dilly shoved and tugged. It came loose abruptly, scattering wood splinters and fragments of mortar, and leaving a scar like a pulled tooth.
“Good! Now the other one.” Taras watched in agonized suspense as Dilly struggled with the next bar. If one of her friends had escaped, perhaps together the two of them and that Eicys girl could get out of Isengard. And even if she was killed, that was better than the questioners… Why hadn’t he told her earlier?
The second bar pulled free and Dilly attacked the third, panting. This one was easier; after only a few moments, it squealed harshly and fell into Dilly’s hand. “One more,” she said.
“Don’t bother with it, that one’s not as loose. You can fit through there. Hurry!”
“I’m flattered that you think I’m that thin,” Dilly said wryly. Standing on tiptoe, she pushed her arms through the hole and then shouldered her way through, wincing as the jagged sill tore at her skin and clothes. “Mmph! Oh no.” She wiggled desperately. She was stuck; her jeans had snagged and the opening was too narrow to squeeze her hand back through and free herself. Her legs hung kicking inside the cell, and the rest of her hung in the hallway, several feet above the ground. “This is kinda awkward,” she said, embarrassed and frightened and extremely uncomfortable. “Ow – ow -” She squirmed hard and –
“Yikes!” Dilly tumbled headfirst out of the little opening, hitting her head and badly bruising one elbow. “I’m out!” she said unnecessarily.
“Good,” Taras panted, his face white and agonized. “Now go!”
“What?” Dilly demanded. “What about you?”
“I’ll be fine – go!”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Dilly said stubbornly, scrambling to her feet.
“Yes, you are,” he snarled. “Nobody else is going to suffer for me. Now will you go, I can hear them com – ” He stopped in horror as an orc rounded the corner. Dilly whipped around, gasped, and shrank against Taras’ door.
“Dilly, run!” Taras cried as the orc bore down on her, sword raised.
Too late. The orc crushed Dilly up against Taras’ door. “An’ where d’you think yer goin’?” he sneered. His sword glared red in the torchlight as he gave her an evil grin. “I’ll tell yeh where.” He lifted the sword high. “Nowhere!”
Taras’ hand shot from between his bars and grabbed the orc by the throat.
The creature gurgled and choked as Taras’ grip tightened.
“Don’t – touch – her,” he gritted, the sinews in his wrist knotting.
Wheezing frantically, the orc raised his sword again, aiming it between the bars at the Gondorian’s face.
Dilly squirmed free from where he had her pinned, then turned back and leapt at him. She had no idea why she was doing something so stupidly heroic; she simply clung to the thing’s back, pummeling him with fists and feet. The orc dropped his sword in surprise and reeled backward, pulling free from an equally shocked Taras. Shouting, the orc attempted to swat Dilly off his back. But she had already let go and darted toward his fallen sword. The orc stopped, staring at her, then his gaze moved to the blade, which was shaking violently as Dilly pointed it at him.
“Pathetic,” he sneered. “Give it up. Sharkey wants teh have a liddle talk with yeh…” He smiled hideously, and without a flicker of warning, charged at her.
There was a muted crunch, a horrible scream, and a spatter of warm liquid. Dilly opened her eyes. The orc slid bonelessly off the sword in her hands and sprawled on the foor, very dead. Dilly’s face and arms were spotted with corrosive black blood. She dropped the sword and it clattered on the flagstones, echoing metallically in the silence.
“I killed him,” she said, and swallowed queasily. “I killed him! I didn’t mean to…”
“Are you hurt?” Taras asked.
Dilly shook her head, still staring at the dead orc. “No…” She squeezed her eyes shut, praying she wouldn’t do anything stupid, like cry or faint or throw up.
After a moment she opened her eyes again – and from the growing pool of blood, a gleam of metal caught her eye. Dilly gasped, then grabbed it triumphantly. “He had keys!”
Taras froze, his eyes fixed on the glinting ring in Dilly’s hand.
“We’re free!” Dilly crowed, fumbling with his lock. Taras swallowed as he pressed close against his door, watching.
There was a little click, and the door swung wide.
Taras just stood there, staring. Dilly beamed at him. Slowly, Taras reached out to touch the familiar, hated door frame. i]Three years… He took a deep breath and stepped out of his cell.
And I’m never going back, he vowed. He turned and gave Dilly a smile of pure happiness. Dilly grinned back, picked up the orc’s sword, and offered it to him. “Shall we?” she asked, wiping her hands.
His fingers curled around the hilt. “Definitely,” he said. And they set off down the corridor.
* * * * * * * * * *
Eicys loitered uneasily near the entrance to Saruman’s dining chamber, fiddling with her gauntlets and frequently checking that her hair was still safely tucked beneath its helmet. Occasionally her hand would stray to the little pouch of herbs tucked beneath her armor, and she would have to jerk it away again and look innocent… or at least as innocent as your average orc, which meant not at all.
She wished Ungrath were here. Eicys had never thought she’d live to see the day she found an uruk’s company reassuring, but there it was. And she really ought to talk with him: she’d been rather abrupt back in the dungeon, and he’d been acting strange for days…
Eicys sighed and hoped that the food came soon. She had no idea how she was supposed to get the contents of her little packet into Saruman’s lunch without being caught, let alone how the wizard would ever imbibe the whole thing without noticing. But just then the first of the servant came hurrying down the hallway, his tray laden with a silver pitcher and two goblets.
Two? thought Eicys. Man, he must really like his wine. She watched the servant approach, her mind racing through a slew of ideas, each of them worse than the last. The servant looked intelligent and alert, the tray was right under his eyes, the hallway was completely bare but for the two of them. Eicys had about as much chance of sneaking herbs into that pitcher as Ungrath did of winning a beauty pageant.
And the servant was giving her suspicious looks…
Apparently, though, he was too busy giving said looks to remember the fact that he was in a long robe. As the man stumbled, Eicys snatched the pitcher just before it fell, sloshing a sizeable amount over herself and the servant. She barely noticed: without even bothering to question such a ridiculously lucky accident, Eicys emptied the entire packet of sleeping powder into the wine while the servant angrily mopped himself off.
“Clumsy idiot,” he snapped, because this orc was little and he could. He snatched the pitcher back, balanced his tray carefully, and strode into the dining hall. Eicys peered after him, almost delirious with her good fortune.
What are the odds of that happening? she thought gleefully as she sidled carefully after him and took up a position by the doorframe, as though standing guard. Then she looked up at the table. Her heart stopped. Eredolyn was sitting across from Saruman… and the servant was filling her goblet with wine.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tuima peered through her bars thoughtfully. Cries and curses echoed through the dungeon. An orc rushed past, his torch flaring painfully against her eyes now accustomed to darkness.
She wondered what had happened to put the foul creatures in such a temper. Perhaps Saruman was in a particularly evil mood that day. As her mind hurtled alarmingly down this train of thought, another torch seared her eyes, just at her door, and behind its light she heard frantic, muttered curses and someone fumbling at the lock. Tuima’s breath quickened. She groped for the stone she had worked loose from the wall, raised it high, and brought it smashing down on –
“Dilly!” Tuima halted mid-swing. The rock dropped from her hands. “What – How – ” The dark-haired girl laughed, a little nervously for having narrowly avoided a concussion.
“Hey Tuima! How are you?”
“Er… hello, Dilly,” Tuima said uncertainly. “Is this the escape then?”
Just then a tall man, whose dark hair and gray eyes proclaimed him as Gondorian, ducked into her cell, grasping a brightly burning torch.
“Ai!” Tuima said faintly and shielded her watering eyes. “That’s bright!” She eyed the man narrowly. “Who are you?”
“Oh,” Dilly said hurriedly. “Taras, this is my friend Tuima. Tuima, this is Taras Imrahilion, of Dol Amroth.” She paused. “Did I say it right that time?” she asked the Gondorian.
He smiled. “Perfectly,” he said.
“People in this place have the weirdest last names,” Dilly said self-consciously.
Tuima arched an eyebrow, but couldn’t help noticing how much more attractive this Taras was when he smiled. The she saw Dilly, apparently noticing the same thing… except perhaps more so. One pointed brow rose significantly.
Dilly blushed. Taras coughed.
Tuima’s eyebrows climbed almost to her hairline.
“Um, I mean – ” Dilly hurried to say. “Yes, this is the escape.”
“Where’s Eicys then?” Tuima demanded.
“We… don’t know. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Dlly said. Tuima looked horrified. “But it was an emergency!” Dilly hurried on. “Something’s gone wrong with Eredolyn… the orcs were coming to take me for questioning…” She shuddered.
“But we have to have Eicys,” said Tuima. “We’ll be completely lost without her.”
“No we won’t,” Dilly said. “Remember she gave me that map?”
“She said it only showed one floor,” Tuima shot at her.
“Yes, but that storeroom that she said she was stocking is on our floor. We can go there, and – ”
“What about the others?” Tuima asked sharply. “Do you plan on leaving them here?”
“Of course not,” Dilly retorted. “I was saying, we can go to the storeroom and wait for Eicys there. She can help us break the rest of the Immies out of their cells.”
“What if Eicys doesn’t come?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
Tuima’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Taras quickly intervened, taking the map from Dilly. “She’s right,” he told the Elf. “This is our best chance.” He added almost inaudibly, “Which isn’t saying much…”
Taras studied the worn parchment a moment, then jerked his head to the left. “This way.”
* * * * * * * * *
Eredolyn gingerly speared an elegant something and even more gingerly put it in her mouth. Across the heavily laden table, Saruman smiled a question.
“It’s good!” Eredolyn said. And it was. She had no idea what it was, but she wasn’t going to display her ignorance by asking. The wizard’s eyes seemed to pull at her, and she suppressed the urge to babble away the silence by taking another large bite.
She didn’t know why she was so uncomfortable. True, this was her first time dining with Saruman, but it was so grand and sumptuous that she ought to have been thrilled, not taken aback. But after talking to Dilly and Eicys, banquets and dresses and even the book Saruman had given her had seemed faintly absurd. Eredolyn had a fleeting thought – what the heck am I doing here? – but squelched it. Relax, enjoy the meal, they won’t be bothering me again…
It wasn’t a comforting thought. Relax, Eredolyn told herself again. She looked up and smiled. “Everything’s Dilly,” she said. The faintest flicker of annoyed surprise blinked in the depths of Saruman’s eyes. “I mean, delicious!” Eredolyn corrected herself, laughing awkwardly. She hurried to cover her mistake: “Please pass the slap.” She caught her breath. “The salt!”
Saruman eyed her consideringly. “Are you well, Lady Eredolyn?”
Eredolyn fiddled with her spoon. “Oh, I’m fine,” she said brightly. He raised a concerned eybrow. “I guess I’m still just a little upset about my friends,” she confessed.
Saruman made an understanding noise, looking so interested and sympathetic that Eredolyn found herself spilling out her troubles: “They just don’t understand! They’re so – inconsiderate!”
The wizard’s troubled expression at these words seemed to Eredolyn to be almost more than was called for. “Um,” she said. “What is it?”
“Ah – nothing, nothing,” he said, now looking even more troubled. “It’s merely that…” He waved one elegant white hand. “Do not concern yourself.”
“No – please tell me,” Eredolyn said.
Dark brows creased over the pools of his eyes. “I had hoped to spare you bad news,” he said sorrowfully. “But I am afraid it cannot be kept from you any longer… my Lady, your friends have left.”
A sliver of ice slid into the pit of Eredolyn’s stomach. “Left?” she echoed stupidly. “Where? …When?”
“Only a few hours ago,” Saruman said, his golden voice saturated with sympathy. “I have sent servants to look for them, but they have had no luck. I am truly sorry, my Lady.” He raised a goblet to his lips and watched her over the rim.
Eredolyn stared vaguely at her own untouched goblet. “Left?” she said again. “…But they didn’t even say anything to me!” Oh, didn’t they? a little voice returned mockingly.
“It was most unbecoming of them to treat you so,” Saruman said, with a perfect tinge of fierceness tugging at his compassionate tone.
Eredolyn nodded, but with less venom than Saruman had hoped for. She was squirming under that little voice in her head that was saying, Ha! You’re a good one to talk about unbecoming treatment to friends. “I can’t believe they would just – just leave,” she said numbly. “Didn’t they say anything about where they were going? Didn’t they leave a message or anything?
Saruman sighed regretfully. “I had hoped, my dear, that you could tell me. Surely you have some idea of where they might have gone?” Eredolyn shook her head. “Ah, but one so well-versed as you are in the geography of these lands must know something,” he pressed. And, gratified by the happy smirk that crossed Eredolyn’s face, he moved on too quickly: “Perhaps they have gone to join that company of the Ring I have heard so much about?”
It almost worked. “They’d better not, without me!” Eredolyn cried. “Not that I’d want to go to -” She stopped, and blinked, and stared suspiciously at Saruman. “Um,” she said.
“Yes?” he said, his voice so perfectly pitched as to sound concerned, and only interested for her sake. But still it managed to press at her: cold, heavy, insistent.
Eredolyn’s hazel eyes emptied. “Go… to…”
Eredolyn jumped, her mind clearing. She heard paper crackling. Saruman whipped around on the servant so quickly that his white hair and robes snapped behind. “I gave explicit instructions -” he hissed.
“But my lord, in the dungeons, there’s been -” The servant stopped abruptly at Saruman’s expression.
“Later,” the wizard said venomously.
Blinking rapidly, the servant backed away. Saruman took a deep, deliberate swallow of his wine and turned again to Eredolyn, whose head was bent over her lap, short hair falling over her eyes. “Lady Eredolyn?” he queried gently.
Eredolyn didn’t hear. The crackling paper had been Dilly’s note, tucked deep into a pocket, and as soon as Saruman turned, she had pulled it out. Now she sat reading and re-reading the short lines, her heart pounding and her eyes hot and bright.
When books are withered and dresses are faded,
and all wisdom is forgotten,
you’ll still have your friends.
From your best one
Eredolyn swallowed, drenched in guilt. What have I done? she thought, appalled. Then she looked up at Saruman, who was still wearing that perfect mask of kind concern. It was so easy to miss the tiny flicker of greed and impatience in the depths of his black eyes…
Snatches of Tolkien came floating back to her, as though across a wide distance: …a voice low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment… studied long upon the lore of the Rings… the Cunning…Ever he desired… Traitor…
Eicys gulped. Oh, no. How could I be so stupid? Suddenly she felt very small and afraid. Saruman seemed to loom in her vision, a cold pale light flickering around him like a terrible halo. The folds of his white robes gleamed like opals, changing colors dizzyingly as he moved. Saruman the White, kind and patient and so wise –
“Liar,” Eredolyn whispered.
“What was that, my Lady?” he asked, with the faintest edge of a threat.
Eredolyn would have loved to leap up and denounce him; it was what a hero ought to do, it was what characters always did in stories like this. She sat a moment, shivering, and then said in a small and hurried voice: “Um, I really don’t feel well… I think I’d better go.”
Saruman drew a quick hissing breath and raised a hand. He was going to say something… that beautiful dark voice…
“I really have to go!” Eredolyn blurted loudly. She shoved back her chair, leapt to her feet, and fled the room.
“Follow her!” Saruman hissed wildly at the door guards. One of them leapt forward immediately: a smaller orc with muddy, oversized armor. It hurried after Eredolyn, then paused and looked back. The wizard glared over his goblet as he took a deep, calming draft of the wine, and pointed one long-nailed finger impatiently. The goblin grinned in a weirdly satisfied way, turned, and ran out the door.
Saruman scowled as he set his goblet down and beckoned for the servant who had approached him earlier. He wished for nothing so much as to blast the incompetent, tactless idiot clean out of the Ring of Isengard, but he had to hear the news first.
“What’s this about a problem in the dungeons?”