Eicys’ head bobbed unsteadiy over the neck of her warg. The world had dissolved into a gritty haze of cold, aching exhaustion. She could feel Ungrath’s warm bulk at her back, steadying her, and she sagged against him gratefully. He smelled horribly of the orc barracks – but then, Eicys reasoned, she probably did, too. Her clothing was so filthy that every crease chafed against her equally dirty skin, and she could feel the warg’s rank sweat loosening the dried gore that caked her jeans, so that a trickle of muddy black blood ran into her socks. She was too tired to care. This had been, without a doubt, the longest day of her entire life. And probably the worst, too, even though everything – almost everything – had turned out all right in the end.
She glanced over at the warg loping alongside: Dilly’s head was lolling on Taras’ chest, her hair spilling over a frighteningly pale face and tangling in the bloody bandages that wrapped her shoulder. As Eicys watched, Dilly opened her eyes, blinking hazily for a moment before letting out a muffled cry of pain. Her fingers clutched at the front of Taras’ ragged tunic as she clenched her teeth, breath hissing in and out in short, shallow gasps.
“Dilly,” he said, very low, as he steadied her. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she gritted. “I’m okay. Where are we?”
“We stole some wargs. We’re almost to Fangorn. Tuima says she can find herbs there to help…”
“I’ll be all right,” she gasped. “Is there any water?”
Taras fumbled awkwardly for his pack, keeping his seat on the warg with just his knees as he propped Dilly against his chest and pulled a flask out of the leather sack. But Dilly had already sunk back into unconsciousness, her clenched fists easing with the relief of oblivion.
Eicys sighed and let go of her grip on the warg’s mane for long enough to scrub a hand across her eyes. After almost two hours of riding, the shadow of Fangorn was finally resolving itself into a tangled black wall of trees just ahead, and the wargs were slowing as they approached. Wlore, who was in the lead with Eredolyn and Cebu hanging on wearily behind her, nudged her mount forward through a low arch of trees, not without a last, longing glance at the open plains behind her. The other two wargs followed wearily, snapping at each other to be the first one through.
The trees creaked and moaned, the rustling of their leaves sounding eerily like human voices, and all the Immies glanced around apprehensively. Except Tuima, who spread her arms, tipped her head back, and sighed deeply, murmuring in Elvish. The creaking stilled, and a benign silence settled over the trees.
Then the warg carrying Ungrath and Eicys passed into the forest, and immediately the groaning picked up again, furious and menacing. Eicys shivered, feeling her friend stiffen behind her. Tuima glanced at them, then overhead at the forest canopy, and then went into a string of lilting Elvish that eventually settled the trees into a sullen creaking that sharpened whenever the orc moved suddenly.
“Can we stop yet?” groaned Cebu, who was feeling certain that her lower half would never be the same again.
“Not yet,” Tuima said. “We need to get far enough to be safe from pursuit. I am surprised we haven’t seen anyone behind us yet; we caused quite a bit of havoc in our… departure.”
“Yeah, but they don’t have anyone to organize them,” said Eredolyn. “Last time we saw Saruman he could barely stand up straight.”
Tuima smiled as smugly as her dignity would permit.
“So can we stop?” Cebu asked again, pleadingly.
“Just a little further,” Tuima said, and nudged her warg forward again. Several people groaned, but they all followed, the haphazard beams of moonlight playing over dirty, exhausted faces.
After several more eternities, Eicys, who had long since sagged into the stiff unpleasant darkness of half-sleep, became dimly aware of a murmur of voices, and then of the fact that the wargs had pulled to a halt. She opened her eyes blearily to a thick, gnarled blackness: this deep into Fangorn, the light had almost all choked away before it could reach the forest floor.
“Are we there yet?” came Eredolyn’s muffled voice.
“I don’t care,” Cebu answered, her tone saturated with weariness. “I’m getting – ouch – off this thing and – ohhh – going to sleep for a week. Oww…”
Forcing her eyes to stay open, Eicys slid clumsily off her warg and sprawled miserably in the damp, cold leaves. The animal bared long fangs at her, but she only reached up and smacked it away. “Leave me `lone,” she mumbled irritably. The warg regarded her in surprise, and Eicys heard Wlore laugh tiredly just behind her.
“Have we come far enough, do you think?” Tuima asked Taras.
“We can’t go any further,” he said. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it.” He shifted Dilly so that he could dismount.
“I’ll tie up the wargs,” said Wlore, taking a lead rope.
“Should I start a fire or anything?” said Eredolyn, who was staying upright only by leaning against her warg. When it moved off after Wlore, she staggered and landed in an undignified heap next to Cebu, who was drooping against a tree, leaves clinging to her flaming curls. Eicys crawled over and joined her, huddling close against the February night.
“I’ll take care of the fire,” said Tuima, smudging dirt and weariness away from her eyes. “Got to keep her warm…”
“I’ll do it,” came Taras’ voice. “Do you need anything else?”
“Just water… I’ll go look for herbs once the wound has been cleaned…”
“What can I do?” Eredolyn asked, trying uselessly to stand up again.
“Taras and I will be fine,” said Tuima, every word soaked in poison. Eredolyn blinked and looked down. Her fine velvet gown was smeared and spattered with filth, and she picked miserably at the fraying edge of her tied-up trousers.
But for Eicys, the murmur of voices had faded into a foggy whirl of sheer numb exhaustion, and in seconds she was fast asleep.
She woke up only a few hours later, cold, hungry, filthy, and aching in every fiber. It was still dark, but a flickering orange light showed that Taras had got a fire going, though it was feeble and tiny. Tuima was crouched next to it, her eyes sliding in and out of focus and her limbs unsteady from exhaustion as she shredded some leaves into the helmet they were using to boil water in. She dipped a strip of cloth from the hem of her cloak into the hot water, and hunched over Dilly to loosen the stiff, grimy bandages.
“How is she?” Taras croaked, and Eicys shifted so that she could see him: his face was grey with exhaustion, and he had worn a deep track in the forest floor with pacing.
“Still the same,” said Tuima.
Taras turned away again with a muffled curse, and resumed pacing. Four steps, stop abruptly, turn. Four steps, stop, turn, four steps… Eicys, looking at the worn-out impression left by his feet, recognized it as exactly the dimensions of a dungeon cell.
Eicys pressed her back closer against Cebu’s, shivering in the freezing air, and tried to ignore the sting and throb of various small injuries that were clamoring for her attention. She realized with a weary groan that she was still wearing most of her orc-armor; she pulled off the most uncomfortable bits before burrowing back into the damp leaves and clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering. Eredolyn and Wlore shifted slightly to let her back in: none of them were able to fall completely asleep, despite their exhaustion.
“Cold,” muttered Eredolyn.
“Th’r’s a fire,” Eicys mumbled.
“Tiny one. Tired,” Cebu said, and the four girls bunched closer together and tried hard to get some sleep.
They woke up several more times as the night wore on, as is usual when cold and uncomfortable. The third time that Eicys woke up, Cebu and Eredolyn were awake as well, murmuring weary monosyllables as they squirmed around trying to avoid rocks and roots.
“… awful place,” said Cebu. “All we need now is for it to start – “
“Don’t,” Eredolyn interrupted. “Please.”
There was a pause.
“It’s raining,” said Eicys gloomily.
They simply sat there as the shower increased, plastering their filthy hair against their heads. There was nothing to be done – they were already under a tree, and apparently the only thing that did was allow the raindrops to collect themselves into big fat raindrops before aiming them down the collars of those below.
“Can this day get any worse?” muttered Wlore, awake and shivering next to Eredolyn.
“Don’t!” Eredolyn said again, fearing the laws of comedy.
“I think she’s right,” Eicys croaked, wringing water out of her hair. It came out tinged with black from the orc-blood caked into her scalp, and she grimaced. “I mean, every time someone says `it can’t get worse’ – “
“It always does!” said Eredolyn, shifting so that she was no longer sitting in a puddle. Her makeshift pants were soaking wet, and sticking cold and clammy against her skin.
“–It always starts raining,” Eicys finished. “And it’s already raining. So it’s safe to say that now it can’t get any worse.”
There was a clap of thunder, and it started to hail.
“I’m shutting up,” Eicys said dully, as icy pellets bounced around them.
“Good idea,” snarled Eredolyn.
There was a thoroughly miserable silence, broken only by the occasional sharp “ow.” Eicys listened to the faint sizzle of ice striking the coals of Taras’ doused fire: Taras himself was crouched next to Tuima, the two of them sheltering Dilly under Taras’ outstretched cloak. It probably didn’t make much difference – Dilly was a frightening grey-white, and raindrops slid as carelessly across her face as though it belonged to a marble statue. Eicys humped her shoulders unhappily and stared at nothing until the hail lessened, and finally stopped. Still nobody said anything.
Finally Wlore broke the silence: “Sunrise isn’t for a couple of hours,” she said. They just looked at her dully. The thought of trying to go back to sleep was ridiculous; instead they huddled close together, heads drooping briefly in spurts of exhaustion, only to jerk upright again as the cold and discomfort stabbed at them.
Somehow, though, Eicys managed to drop off for a while, and when she woke up again, with her neck aching fiercely from the awkward angle, faint rays of early-morning sunlight were pushing their way through the forest canopy overhead, cool and lemon-yellow. Eicys groaned and tried to stand; her muscles shrieked in protest as she staggered to her feet and looked around.
Her mouth felt scummy and gross, goosebumps prickled her dirty arms, and her hair stood out from her head in a mass of snarls, but she felt a little better. Things are always better in the morning, even if the morning concerned is a muddy, wet and frigid one in the middle of nowhere without any food or shelter and a wounded friend and whole bags of nasty vicious killers a couple hours away who are very, very angry with you.
Okay, scratch that. She didn’t feel better at all.
She stumbled over to the black and soggy remnants of the fire, and sat down next to Dilly, looking her over carefully. There was a groan and some movement behind her, and then Eredolyn sat down as well, staring anxiously at Dilly’s too-pale face. “She hasn’t woken up yet?” she asked.
“A few times, earlier in the night,” said Tuima. “But nothing in the past few hours. May the blackest Void take that uruk and his carelessness!”
Eicys and Eredolyn exchanged confused looks. Tuima explained: “The uruk let his blade become blunt and rusty.” Seeing their continuing bewilderment, she sighed and said, “That means that the wound is not clean. It was like being struck with a club as well as a blade: there is a great deal of bruising and filth, and the collarbone is badly broken. I think…” She sighed again. “I think it is already infected.” Taras, who had halted his pacing to listen, swore softly and resumed his restless strides, head in hands.
“We have to get her to a hospital,” Eredolyn said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Eicys nodded anxiously. “Our backyard has to be around here somewhere.” She realized belatedly how ridiculous that sounded.
“Fangorn is huge,” said Tuima soberly. “And it was dark when the orcs captured us, and it was dark, too, last night when we returned. We could be anywhere.”
Eicys stiffened with dawning horror. “We’re lost?” she asked, her voice disappearing on the last word. “You don’t know the way back?”
“Couldn’t you just find our tracks or something?” Eredolyn asked.
“It’s been nearly a month since we were taken to Isengard,” snapped Tuima. “Such tracking is beyond my skill. And we can hardly go traipsing about the forest with Dilly in this condition.”
“Yeah, but we can’t stay here with her like this, either!” Eredolyn argued. “She needs a doctor, and real medicine!”
Tuima scowled. “I have studied herbs and healing in Imladris for a century,” she said, ice cubes slithering down every syllable. “I know what I am doing.”
“Then why’s she like this?” Eredolyn demanded, gesturing desperately at her best friend. “Why haven’t you fixed her yet?”
“Because,” hissed Tuima, “I do not have any medicine or supplies, and I have not yet had time to gather enough herbs: I have been too busy caring for Dilly while you slept.” The pointed sarcasm in the last word was wielded like a knife, and Eredolyn flinched, the blood leaving her face in hurt and shame and fury.
“As I recall,” she snapped, “I wanted to help and you practically — ”
“G’morning…” came Cebu’s groggy voice behind them, and Tuima and Eredolyn both jumped. Cebu and Wlore pulled themselves upright, looking disshevelled and pinched. The redhead looked like an autumn bush with her hair full of leaves.
“Is there anything to eat?” Wlore asked wearily.
“A little,” said Tuima, her gaze still acid. “Mostly orc-rations.”
The word reminded Eicys of something that had been nagging at her all night. “Where’s Ungrath?” she said.
Without stopping his pacing, Taras lifted an arm and pointed. Several yards outside the little clearing that the Immies had slept in, Ungrath was dozing with his head on his knees. He had been careful to stay as far from all the trees as possible.
“Wasn’t he cold?” Cebu asked, still groggy.
Taras shrugged, his eyes hard. The two other natives of Middle-earth, Wlore and Tuima, reacted similarly. Wlore was already rifling through the two packs that had survived the escape, looking disgusted. “This one has blood all over everything,” she said. “And there’s only a little flatbread and some dried meat in the other one.”
“Meaning the flatbread is the only thing we have,” said Taras, gingerly taking the strips of meat and throwing them into the trees.
“Hey!” said Eicys.
“Did you want to eat it?” Taras demanded. “It’s not cooked, you know, just dried – and who knows what creature it came from? Orcs eat men, as well as other orcs.”
Eicys stared at him in horror. “Oh no,” she moaned at last. “I think I’m gonna be sick. I’ve been eating that stuff for a month. Oh man, oh gross, ohhh…” She clamped a hand over her mouth and stared fixedly at the forest floor, looking green. “Oh, man, I hate this place,” she mumbled. “I want to go home. I want to go home.”
Cebu slumped down beside her. “Well, we have breakfast at least,” she said.
“And I’m sure I can find roots and leaves to eat,” Tuima said. “And Taras could go hunting.”
“With what?” asked Taras gloomily. “My sword?”
“There’s got to be some sort of rope or log traps you can make, right?” asked Eredolyn.
“We don’t have any rope,” Taras pointed out. He sighed. “I’ll see what I can do, though.”
“Right,” said Tuima. “Taras will go hunting, Wlore and I will look for herbs, Eicys, you and Cebu try to find some water, and Eredolyn, you search for the driest wood you can find. Don’t cut any of the trees, though!”
“While what, the orc stays behind to watch over Dilly?” Taras asked caustically. Eicys bristled, but Tuima looked startled, and then appalled.
“No,” she said. “Eredolyn, you had better stay here. Ungrath can go for wood.”
“I’d rather keep an eye on him,” Taras said soberly. Eicys scowled.
“Do you want him to go hunting with you?” Tuima demanded, and Taras’ eyes narrowed at once. He shook his head decisively.
“We’d never catch anything. And I couldn’t guarantee that we’d both come back. He knows I don’t trust him.”
Eicys gaped between them, shocked and furious. “I can’t believe you!” she exclaimed. “What does he have to do? He almost died, for heaven’s sake!”
“He did die,” said Taras. “I saw it. And now he’s walking around again, perfectly fine, with a different face?” He snorted. “Even if it is the same orc, I don’t trust anything that ought to be dead and isn’t. It sounds like those wraiths that they say haunt Minas Morgul.”
“Or the Paths of the Dead,” Wlore added, sorting the bread into portions and handing it around. Eicys opened her mouth incredulously, shut it again with a snap, and snatched her rations out of Wlore’s hand. She took a second portion as well, and then turned around and marched out of the clearing, to where Ungrath was still huddled up small as he could, away from the trees.