As soon as Eredolyn was out the door she took off running, not even sure of where she was going, just wanting to put as much distance as she could between herself and the wizard. Her heavy skirts tangled awkwardly around her legs and she growled in disgust, hitching them up as high as she could, her old sneakers looking ridiculously out of place.
Behind her she heard loud, metallic footsteps, then a clatter-BANG. Eredolyn put on a burst of speed, and then suddenly slowed at the sound of a young girl’s voice behind her.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid armor!” Eicys snapped.
Eredolyn smiled the wobbly grin of profound relief. They hadn’t left without her, after all! She turned around. “Eicys?”
“Eredolyn? Is that you?”
Eredolyn hurried back to her friend, who was sitting on the floor, wrestling with her bent greave. Eicys looked up. There was an awkward silence.
“Um, Eicys?” Eredolyn said at last, studying her shoes.
“I’m really, really sorry.”
Eicys sighed. “I’m sorry too,” she said.
“… For what?” asked Eredolyn blankly.
“Oh,” said Eicys. “Um… I don’t know, actually.” She tried a smile, which, as smiles go, was a rather bad failure.
“Well,” Eredolyn said, and then again, “Well. Um…”
“I think we should get out of here,” Eicys interrupted.
“Yes, please,” said Eredolyn fervently, and this time Eicys managed a real smile.
“This way,” she said, pointing as Eredolyn helped her to her feet. “We’ll get the others from the dungeon and then leave right away.”
Eredolyn nodded, bent down, and ripped her beautiful silken skirts from thigh to ankle. “What are you doing?” Eicys cried.
“Making it so I can run,” Eredolyn grunted. She stepped out of the underskirt entirely and ripped a few long strips off its hem, which she used to tie the two halves of her skirt around her legs. The end result was a bunched-up pair of what looked like doubloons.
“Cute,” grinned Eicys.
“Shut up and run,” Eredolyn retorted, and took off down the corridor. Still grinning, Eicys clattered after her baggy friend.
“So, do we have a plan?” Eredolyn panted as they ran.
“Sort of. We were supposed to have more time, but it looks like things are coming to a head. I wonder what that servant was talking about… Problems in the dungeons… Well, we’ll find out pretty soon, I imagine. In the meantime, the main thing to do is find everyone and get out of this horrible place!” The two of them dashed down a flight of stairs and Eicys jerked her head toward a narrow window as they ran past. “It’s a good thing it’s daytime still – there’s not so many orcs out in the Ring until after dark.”
“Wait a minute,” Eredolyn said abruptly. She turned and hurried back to the window. “That isn’t right!” she exclaimed.
“What?” said Eicys. “Eredolyn, we really have to go.”
“No no no, hold on a sec. Look!”
Eicys peered out onto a desolate, smoking circle ringed with enormous walls. “Yes, thrilling,” she said. “Let’s go!”
Eredolyn grabbed her arm. “Doesn’t something seem wrong to you?”
Blue eyes squinted from beneath the heavy orkish helmet. “No.”
“Think about it! We’ve been here for two, three weeks, right? So where are the Ents?”
“You know,” Eredolyn said impatiently. “Hoom-hoom, don’t be hasty…”
“I know what Ents are.”
“Yeah, but they should be here by now! This place,” she gestured at the barren Ring of Isengard, “should all be under water!”
“Not necessarily,” said Eicys. “Come on, Ere, we have to go. That sleeping draught won’t hold Saruman for long.”
“Sleeping draught?” Eredolyn asked, distracted. “How’d you pull that off?”
“Saruman has a garden – I gathered the herbs and Tuima made this powder stuff that I put in his wine – he drank a whole bunch while he was talking to you. Anyway, the point is, Isengard stood for centuries before the Ents showed up. We could have arrived months ahead of schedule.”
“No, because I heard Saruman talking about Coralie, and she doesn’t show up until the War of the Ring!”
“What, Coralie is really in Middle-earth? I thought it was just a fanfic!”
“It is not just a fanfic!” Eredolyn said mulishly.
“Okay,” Eicys apologized. “But how do we know the Ents won’t show up in a week or two? We don’t know what day it is.”
“Well it should be the middle of March, because it was late February when we got here.”
“Our time or Middle-Earth time?”
“Middle-Earth. Saruman mentioned the date a few weeks ago, and it was something like February twenty-eighth, I’m pretty sure. The timeline is all messed up!”
“How?” Eicys asked impatiently.
“The Ents show up on March…” Eredolyn thought a moment. “March third. That’s about two weeks ago!”
“Holy Tolkien nerd,” Eicys muttered. “So what?”
“So something’s wrong,” said Eredolyn. “This place isn’t following Tolkien’s writing!”
“This place is Tolkien’s writing!”
Eredolyn bit her lip. “No it’s not,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s Lady Coralie’s.”
“I’m serious! Think about it. Coralie is here, in Middle-Earth. We even met Drysi, remember? And there are human servants, like in Aussie in King Aragorn’s Court, and I’m pretty sure Tolkien never mentioned any. And there’s an herb garden, just like in Coralie’s story! It all makes sense! And that explains why the Ents haven’t showed up yet – Coralie hasn’t written it!”
“You’re saying,” Eicys said slowly, “that until Coralie writes, the entire story of the Lord of the Rings is in – limbo, or something?”
“Yes!” said Eredolyn triumphantly.
“So Isengard never gets flooded, and Theoden doesn’t recover, and there’s no Pelennor Fields, and the stinking ring can’t be destroyed, all because of a bad case of writer’s block?”
“That sucks,” said Eicys.
“Definitely. I hate writer’s block.”
Eicys rolled her eyes. “Eredolyn?”
“Not that this isn’t completely thrilling, but I don’t think now is the time…” Eredolyn opened her mouth. Eicys sighed, and forestalled further conversation by the straightforward expedient of grabbing her friend by the arm and hauling her toward the dungeons. “I believe your phrase was, `shut up and run’?”
* * * * * * * * *
Taras, Dilly, and Tuima had found the storeroom without too much trouble, and were now hurriedly collecting weapons, cloaks, and food. That is, Dilly was collecting cloaks and food while Taras tried out a variety of swords and Tuima dug through shelves and boxes, looking for her knives. Dilly rolled her eyes and hastily packed for the other two, as well.
“Taras, if you don’t stop swishing those swords around you’re going to take someone’s head off,” she said as she stuffed a leather flask into Tuima’s sack.
“None of them feel right,” Taras complained, whirling one blade in a complicated pattern. “The balance is all wrong.”
“What did you expect from orc weaponry?” Tuima asked, burrowing in a pile of sheaths and belts. Abruptly she emerged, and crude orkish sheaths cascaded off her. “Ha!” She held up her long knives, triumphant. “And look!” She dived back in and extricated a long narrow something from the bottom of the basket. “For you, I imagine,” she said, tossing it to Taras. “Eicys thought of everything.”
Taras unsheathed the blade and examined it reverently. He sliced the air experimentally, and was rewarded with a sszzzing noise. “Valar,” he breathed. “This is some sword.”
Tuima finished strapping her knives to her back and came over to examine it. “Elvish,” she pronounced. “Lorien make.” For a moment she stared at it, then sighed. “I wonder who…” Her mouth tightened.
There was an awkward pause. Dilly silently put a pack into the Elf’s arms, and she stood glaring at it a moment before swinging it over her shoulders, making sure her knives were still easily reached. “Come on,” Tuima snapped. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What about Eicys?” Dilly asked, handing Taras his pack.
“We can’t just wait here and expect to go unnoticed forever. They must certainly be looking for us by now.”
In fact this was untrue. In the commotion upon finding that Wlore had escaped, the Immies had been largely forgotten – though of course they couldn’t know this.
“So what are we supposed to do then?” Dilly argued. “We can’t find our way out of here without Eicys, and we certainly can’t just take off without anybody else.”
Tuima bit her lip. “We should at least be prepared in case Eicys doesn’t turn up. We ought to have some sort of alibi, or disguise…” She trailed off, looking around the storeroom speculatively. Then she gave Taras a look he didn’t like at all.
“What?” the Gondorian asked nervously.
Tuima smiled evilly. “How would you like to be an orc for a day?”
Ten minutes later, Taras was strapped into a crude assemblage of leather, steel, and skins, and was grumbling to himself as the girls tugged the finishing touch – a heavy uruk-hai helmet that covered his face – over his head and secured it with yet more straps.
“Can I at least keep the sword?” he asked plaintively. “Phew, it smells like something died in here.”
“Something probably did,” said Tuima crisply. “Now, all you have to do is – “
“I know, I know, go out and intimidate some hapless goblin into giving me directions.” He crammed the helmet further onto his head, muttered something about “obnoxious Elf,” and “can’t see a thing out of this stupid can,” and strode out into the corridor.
* * * * * * * *
“Okay,” Eicys panted as she and Eredolyn dashed down the hundredth flight of stairs. “The storeroom should be just around this – “
There was a cacophany of strange sounds, which if you listened closely could be sorted into:
“AAAAHH!” – “What the…” – CLANG – “Oof!” – CRASH – Clatter – BANG – “Hah!”
In their hiding place in the storeroom, Dilly and Tuima stared at each other a moment, then rushed out into the corridor.
An orc was sprawled face-down on the stone floor, his armor sending up sparks as he thrashed against the grip of a girl with short hair and baggy trousers, who had her knee planted firmly in his back and his arm twisted up and around into a position which arms are really not designed to be in. “Ow!” the orc yelled again.
“HEY!” Dilly shouted.
Eicys and Eredolyn looked up. “Dilly? Tuima? What are you two doing here?” Eicys asked.
“What have you done?” Dilly cried.
“We came to help you escape!” Eredolyn said, jabbing her knee a little harder into the uruk’s back. He yelped.
“He – ” Tuima said coldly, pointing at the uruk, “was already helping us.”
Eredolyn looked down at her prone victim, easing her grip. Taras promptly wrenched his arm free and rolled away. With his good arm, he yanked off the helmet and his long black hair poured out around a pale, angry face.
Eredolyn took a step backwards. “Oh,” she said sheepishly. “Uh, sorry about that…”
Taras glared at her. “I take it you must be Eredolyn,” he said dizzily, rubbing his shoulder. He winced, swung his arm a little, and winced again.
“Um, yes. Um, sorry.” Eredolyn was gaping a little. Even when he was grimacing, Taras was still the most attractive guy she had ever seen. She scooted closer to Dilly. “Ah…”
Dilly seemed to read her friend’s mind. “Mine,” she whispered firmly.
“Drat,” said Eredolyn.
Dilly grinned. “Hey Ere?” she said. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Eredolyn. “I feel like I’ve had my head wrapped in wool for the past three weeks. And I’ve missed you guys.” She looked at her feet. “I’m really, really sorry.”
“Hey, it wasn’t your fault,” said Dilly. Eredolyn smiled gratefully, and fortunately didn’t notice Taras and Tuima giving her mistrustful looks. “And that was a siriously cool karate move,” Dilly added straight-faced. Taras glared. Eicys giggled, and the Gondorian gathered up the scraps of his dignity and ignored her. “Now we have everyone – can we get out of this hole?” he demanded.
“We have to find Cebu,” Tuima reminded him.
“Yeah, and we can’t leave Wlore down here either,” Dilly put in. Abruptly she noticed the expression on Eicys’ face. “What’s wrong?”
Eicys stared at her feet. Tuima was the first to guess. “You couldn’t find your sister’s cell?” It was not really a question.
Eicys squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“Oh, no…” said Dilly under her breath.
“What are we going to do?” Eredolyn asked.
“We’ll go get Wlore out of her cell first,” said Tuima decisively. “We can decide where to go from there.” There was a scattering of reluctant nods, and they all set off, following Eicys.
* * * * * * * * * *
The tower of Orthanc loomed stark and black and menacing over the landscape, its base shrouded in gouts of noxious steam. The ground shook with the pounding of machines and hammers and iron-shod feet, and from deep rents in its tortured surface belched oily black pillars of smoke. Geysers of pale acidic vapor twined around them and laced the wind over Isengard with poisonous fumes.
Far below, the caverns rang with Saruman’s preparations for war…
Ungrath brought his hammer down heavily on the iron, sending a flurry of sparks spinning into the sweltering heat of the forges. He flipped the sword over and brought his hammer down again.
He liked stone better, and for a while after Saruman had given up on him, Ungrath had worked at quarrying in the deep pits of Isengard. But as soon as the dreams started – weird dreams about mountains and crude stone huts and bright sunlight – he had been taken away from stonework. Now he worked wherever he was needed, usually in the forges because of his size, but he was not allowed near stone.
He had been designed for fighting, of course. But then…
It wasn’t that he had been no good – it was the opposite. He was too big, too strong, too fast. It made him nervous; it was unnatural.
His existence was unnatural.
He had rebelled. He had given up, thrown his sword away, and waited to be killed.
He wasn’t killed. Saruman had looked at him with that cold, calculating smile – the same smile that was Ungrath’s first memory – and sent him back to Isengard, and then forgotten about him.
At least, Ungrath hoped he had been forgotten… The uruk shuddered and cast a glance toward his enormous scimitar, propped against the wall. He kept it at hand all the time now, just in case the wizard ever remembered.
It had made the other orcs nervous at first, but they knew better now. They loved being able to torment someone so much bigger than themselves, and had settled down to make his life miserable. They’d succeeded, too, until Eicys came.
Ungrath swung his hammer viciously.
Idiot, he snarled to himself. What did yeh expect? She told yeh she was leavin’, did yeh really think…
He brought his hammer down with such force that the blade he was working on shattered in three pieces.
“Void take it!” roared Ungrath in frustration. He thrust the pieces back into the fire and brought out a scraper for the hot iron that had been smashed into the anvil.
I don’ care.
Yer not gonna see `er agin.
I don’ care.
She’s gonna git `erself killed…
Morgoth, I – don’ – care!
The steel scraper crumpled on itself like thin tin. Ungrath stared at it a minute, then swore viciously and hurled it away. He peeled the remnants of sword off his anvil with one heavy claw and dumped them into the furnace with the rest.
There was a commotion beginning near the entrance to the forge. A few of the bellows-pumpers were arguing with the foreman, demanding to be let off “t’ see th’ fun.” Ungrath looked up, glad of a distraction.
“There `z sum liddle yellow-hair human runnin’ loose,” one stooped orc was saying.
The bottom dropped out of the world. Ungrath felt as though he were falling, as though he’d been scraped hollow with a chunk of ice…
“Tryin’ ter `scape th’ tower,” the hunched creature continued, grinning obscenely. “Idiot got lost, o’ course…”
Somewhere in the hollow pit of horror a fire built up…
“We wanna see`t when they ketch `er,” the orc finished, licking thin black lips in ghoulish anticipation.
The orcs whipped around. Ungrath’s anvil was rocking on its side, and Ungrath himself was hurtling towards them furiously, pulling his massive scimitar out of its sheath as he ran.
“Oy, Experiment!” yelled the stooped one. “Where d’ya think yer – “
Ungrath punched him in the chest.
There was a crunch of bent metal and broken bone, and abruptly the orc was sprawled limply against a wall several feet away, and Ungrath was gone.