A stunned silence is customary at a moment like this. Eicys threw tradition to the winds and promptly hurled herself back up the stairs and into Ungrath’s arms.
He barely caught her in time. She clung to him fiercely, choking on sobs of relief, and for a moment he simply stood there, holding on to her in a sort of shock and trying to pull himself together.
Eicys was crying incoherently into his chest, hugging him as though she was afraid he would disappear; Ungrath swallowed and then, tentatively, hugged her back. And instead of stiffening or pulling away, she wound her fingers into his bloody tunic and leaned her head against him, her sobs slowly dying into little hiccuping gasps of bewilderment and happiness and exhaustion.
And then Ungrath snatched her up off the ground into a fierce, whirling embrace, and Eicys threw her arms around his neck, and tipped back her head until her tangled, blood-streaked hair streamed out behind, and laughed and sobbed until she could hardly breathe.
He stopped abruptly, coming to himself. He set her down very carefully and backed away, looking mortified. “Sorry,” he muttered at the ground. Eicys gave a slightly hysterical laugh, wiped her eyes shakily, and wrapped her arms around him again.
“You’re not dead,” she whispered. “Oh, Ungrath, I thought you – I thought…”
“Me, too,” he said dazedly.
“I – I don’ know… somethin’ about that experiment…” He shivered and looked down at Eicys, who had buried her face in his tunic again, ignoring the black gore that soaked them both. When she turned her face up to him, her tears had left streaks through the layer of blood and grime, but her bright blue eyes were smiling at him ecstatically.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. A frown clouded her eyes. “You – you look so different… For a minute I thought… I mean, is it really you? You were… you…”
She reached up gingerly and touched his face; he didn’t seem so tall right now, somehow. A thin black line was all that remained of a long gash over one eye: it gave him a faintly quizzical look on top of the nervous, cornered one he already wore. She couldn’t seem to pin it down:
something was different… But the eyes were the same; there was no mistaking those eyes. It was Ungrath, without a doubt.
“You’re going to have a scar,” she said irrelevantly.
He laughed, an awkward, uneasy sound. The two of them stared at each other for a moment. Ungrath broke off first, and examined the ground.
Eicys smudged a few more persistent tears out of her eyes, looked up at her friend, and then said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” and hugged him again.
Ungrath leaned back, stiff and startled. After a moment he lowered his arms, and patted her gingerly on the back. “I’m sorry,” Eicys said incoherently into his chest. “I’m sorry, I’m such a mess, but… Ungrath – oh, I thought you were dead, and it was all my fault for not coming sooner…”
“No!” he interrupted fiercely. “You’d’ve been killed.” Eicys looked up at him, and he flushed. “Tha’s diff’rent,” he told her.
“No it isn’t,” Eicys said quietly. “Not at all.” She sighed exhaustedly, and burrowed further into his tunic, which seemed oddly too big for him.
It was very difficult to think clearly with her like that…
“Ungrath…” she grinned suddenly, her chin poking into his chest as she peered up at him again. “Are you blushing?” Ungrath took a hasty step backwards.
“No,” he said stiffly, his ears flaming.
Eicys’ laugh trailed off into a strange stare. “You’re blushing red!” This was very odd; she’d seen Ungrath embarassed before, and it meant he turned a weird dark grey color, because of his orkish blood.
Ungrath touched his face with one hand, looking bewildered and increasingly embarassed. Then –
He gasped and doubled over, both hands now covering his face protectively. “Ungrath?” Eicys cried. “Ungrath!”
But it was only a moment before her friend straightened up, a bit dizzily, and slowly pulled his hands away. Eicys choked, stumbling back a step.
He blinked a few times. “What was that?” he muttered, still looking very unsteady.
Eicys was still gaping at him. “Are you… Are you okay?” she ventured.
Ungrath swayed. “I’m fine,” he growled. He looked surprised, and nervous. “That hurt.”
She stretched out a hand, tentatively. “What happened? You looked – You still look different…”
He just shook his head. “I don’ know,” he said stubbornly. He rubbed a hand across his eyes, stopped, and stared at it. Spreading his fingers, he turned it over and over cautiously before bringing the other one up to stare at it as well. “That… tha’s not…”
He saw Eicys watching him anxiously, and dropped both hands. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked.
“Um,” he said. “Yes.” He looked down at his hands again and muttered inaudibly, “Sharkey’s ungrath…”
Eicys didn’t hear. It was finally sinking in: they’d done it, they’d escaped – and Ungrath was alive. She thought she might pull a complete Mary-Sue and lapse into girly hysterics from the huge tangled mess of emotions that had been ripping at her all day. Instead she seized her friend’s hand, barely noticing how small and strange it felt in her own, and tugged him toward the stairs.
“Come on,” she said, beaming like a hundred sunrises. “Let’s get out of here.”
They stopped in front of Taras and Cebu, neither of whom had significantly altered position from the original frozen astonishment. Cebu’s mouth was hanging open slightly, and Taras had the look of a man recently hit over the head by something very heavy.
“Wha…?” Cebu managed after a while.
“Cebu,” Eicys said, smiling hugely, “I’d like you to meet Ungrath. Ungrath, this is my sister Cebu.”
It was difficult to say who appeared to be more alarmed by this introduction. “Um… Hi,” Cebu said at last. Ungrath jerked his head awkwardly.
“And you already know Taras,” Eicys said blithely.
Ungrath stiffened. He glared at Taras, who, after a startled moment, glared right back, his sea-grey eyes narrowing to slits. One hand strayed toward his sword hilt. Ungrath’s fangs glinted as a low growl built in his chest.
Eicys and her sister shared a frozen, nervous moment, staring between the two.
“Um…” said Cebu nervously. “Taras?”
Taras didn’t look away. “What?” he asked shortly.
“Um, we should probably be, uh, going…” she said. Eicys nodded furious agreement and elbowed Ungrath, badly bruising herself on his armor. He looked down at her and she was taken aback for a moment: this Ungrath was all fangs and steel and… and orc. Then he seemed to shrink, and he looked abashed and rather flustered at her nervousness. He was blushing red again. Eicys thought this must be important somehow, but couldn’t quite…
“That’s not – him,” Taras said suspiciously, interrupting her thoughts.
Eicys looked startled. “What?”
“It doesn’t look like him,” Taras insisted. And he was dead! I saw – Valar, I swear he was dead…
Eicys glanced at Ungrath; he shifted uncomfortably, his tattered armor clanking and sliding as though it were much too large.
“It’s him,” she said, and she couldn’t stop herself smiling.
“How do you know?” Taras demanded. “What happened back there?”
“Who cares?” said Eicys in honest bewilderment. “It’s him.”
“Right,” muttered Taras. “I feel much better now.”
Eicys glared. Ungrath loomed behind her like a massive shadow, his growl the audible equivalent of a shortening fuse.
“Well!” said Cebu with desperate cheerfulness. “Well, we should probably get going about now, don’t you think? We have to catch up to the others!”
Taras seemed to come partially back to the present. “Yes,” he said. “The others. Yes. Let’s go.” But he kept his hand on his sword hilt as they moved off.
* * * * * *
It was Wlore who found the entrance to the warg-stables. Tuima promptly sent her off again to find Eredolyn, and set about securing Dilly’s bandages so that she could be moved. The dark-haired girl kept swimming groggily to the surface of consciousness long enough to perplex Tuima with hazy demands for “antispepeptipsic” and to insist that she didn’t want to go to the hospital. It was a thoroughly bewildered Elf who helped her friends carry Dilly the half-mile or so to the stable entrance: a small, dark opening concealed behind the bulge of a watch tower, out of which billowed a reek strong enough to wade through.
“Ugh,” Eredolyn commented.
“It’s the only way,” Tuima told her, and pulled Dilly after her into the tunnel mouth.
“Hey wait!” Eredolyn said. “What are you doing?”
If it had not been thoroughly beneath her dignity and also unheard-of in her culture, the Elf would almost certainly have said, “Duh.” As it was, she managed to convey a similar sentiment with one pointedly arched eyebrow.
“Well, yes, okay I know,” Eredolyn said hastily. “But what about the others?”
Tuima looked grim. “It’s been an hour.”
“Well… yeah, but…”
“At this point, the most important thing is getting out of here alive. If they’re coming, they’ll be able to follow our tracks. Taras probably has some experience.”
“They won’t be coming,” Wlore said unhappily, rubbing a thumb along her dirk. There was a faint edge in her voice: the sort of practical cynicism that is the lot of all those who live daily with death.
“They’re coming,” Eredolyn said stubbornly. “We should wait a little longer.”
“Didn’t you see those orcs?” demanded Wlore, looking up fiercely. “They’re not coming. They’re probably dead, and if we don’t get out of here, we will be too.”
“They’re not dead!” Eredolyn insisted a little wildly. “They are coming!”
“No, they’re not,” Wlore snapped.
Tuima pointed. “Yes, they are,” she said.
* * * * * *
Eicys had finally put her foot down, and Ungrath was now, very awkwardly and with many muttered protests, walking with his hand on her shoulder to keep himself from falling. There was nothing visibly wrong with him, but he seemed dazed, and unusually clumsy. Eicys was reminded of one of her sisters during a particularly violent growth spurt, except Ungrath seemed rather smaller than before, instead of larger. His armor kept slipping, and his tattered old tunic hung loosely on his shoulders. And every once in a while he would stop, with a little hiss of pain, and double over until he could walk again.
He kept looking at his hands.
“Are you all right?” Eicys asked him worriedly for the umpteenth time.
“I’m fine,” he growled distractedly. “Ah!” He staggered, his fingers tightening on Eicys’ shoulder as his knees threatened to give way. Through the scarlet mist of pain, the memories flashed relentlessly in front of his eyes: a dark room, the bitter smell of herbs and the worse stink of fear, Saruman’s cold pale smile…and, surfacing like a hazy dream, the scene of crude stone huts in the bright sunlight…
“Look!” Taras said suddenly, as the pain dissipated and Ungrath tried to pull himself together. “Isn’t that them?”
* * * * * *
Eredolyn shaded her eyes and peered impatiently across the barren Ring of Isengard. “Where? Where?”
Tuima pointed again. “Look, you can see Cebu’s hair from here! And there’s Eicys, and Taras, and…” She blinked. “Impossible,” she whispered.
There was a long pause before Eredolyn regained control of her hanging lower jaw enough to stammer, “Is that… Ungrath?”
“Impossible,” Wlore echoed. “No one could have survived that…”
The three of them were still gaping slightly when their friends stopped in front of them. Then: “Cebu!” Eredolyn cried happily. “Eicys!” And everyone dissolved into a babble of relieved hugs, inquiries, and introductions. Tuima slipped back into the tunnel almost immediately, with a jerk of her head to Wlore to let her know where she was going, and bent over Dilly again in the gloom.
Everyone was hovering, with awkward astonishment, around a very embarassed Ungrath. Wlore’s warrior side was at the front, and she was gazing at him with what might have been open admiration had he not been an orc. Eredolyn kept peering at him sideways, trying to figure out what was so different about him, and Eicys stuck close to his side the whole time, beaming as though she were showing him off.
The whole time, Taras hadn’t spoken, or even moved. He looked unnaturally pale in the smoky light of Isengard. At the first break in the conversation, he asked, so quietly that they almost didn’t hear, “Where’s Dilly?”
There was a frozen pause. Eredolyn and Wlore looked at each other, and seemed to deflate. “She – she’s with Tuima,” said Wlore. “Inside.” She took a few steps towards the little door and pointed. Taras glanced at Eredolyn’s stricken expression, then strode forward and ducked inside the tunnel mouth.
In the sudden gloom he could barely make out Tuima’s pale face looking up at him. She rubbed a weary hand across her face, leaving sticky red smears, and then looked down again. Taras stared at her a moment before his gaze followed hers unwillingly to the limp form huddled against the tunnel wall, almost hidden from sight.
He went very, very still.
There was no noise: the Immies outside had come to stand by the door, looking in sober silence between the unconscious girl on the ground and the young Gondorian prince, who stood staring at Dilly, utterly unmoving.
Finally he asked, as though from very far away: “What happened?”
“An uruk,” Tuima whispered. There was a pause in which no one looked at Ungrath, but Taras’ hands tightened slowly into fists.
“Where?” he asked, his voice terrifyingly calm.
“In the tow–” Eredolyn began, but Wlore, who knew what he meant, said quietly, “Eredolyn got him.”
Taras’ eyes flickered to Eredolyn for the briefest second, then, irresistibly, turned back to Dilly.
“She’ll be all right,” said Tuima in a rather high voice, and hoped desperately that this was true. Taras was beginning to scare her. “We just need to get out of here. If we can make it to Fangorn I might be able to…” She pressed a new bandage against the bloody mess on Dilly’s shoulder, and Dilly gasped faintly without waking.
Taras still didn’t move, but a terrible intensity grew in his grey eyes, like the hush on the horizon just before a storm. Every line of him was taut and fierce; the pale light streaming through the doorway etched shadows into his lean form. Even Ungrath looked nervous.
“How do we get out?” Taras asked. His voice was still flat and calm. Eicys almost wished he would shout.
“We… we are not certain – yet,” said Tuima, her fingers trembling as she tore another strip of bandage. “We know that there are wargs stabled inside Isengard’s walls, and that they do not leave through the main gate. We will try to get out through whichever exits they use.”
The barest jerk of his head indicated that Taras had heard. “Let’s go then,” he said, and took a long stride forward to kneel by Dilly. He slid his arms under her carefully and levered her up against his chest. Her head nodded limply, and dark hair slid across her face to spill in a thick tangled sheet across Taras’ arm. Blood seeped from beneath the crude bandage to trickle darkly into the hollow of her throat. Taras stood up carefully, and jerked his head at the others, his eyes still smoldering.
The Immies hanging back in the doorway glanced at each other, then one by one they ducked after him into the clinging darkness of the tunnel.
Somewhere in the gloom ahead, they could hear the barking snarl of wargs…