“This is Fangorn Forest.”
The boy stared at her. “Riiight,” he said at last. “And my Auntie is the Queen Mum. Look, isn’t there anyone here who’s going to give me a straight answer?”
The Immies shared resigned looks. “She just did,” said Eicys.
“This is Fangorn,” beamed Eredolyn.
“Unfortunately,” muttered Wlore.
The boy moved to rub his face and stopped when both hands came up: he was still bound. “A little help?” he suggested.
They hesitated. “Why’d she tie you up?” asked Wlore.
“Because I told her I wanted to be a troll in my next life. She’s completely batty. She’s got a bow and her hair is silver. I want someone to tell me what’s going on.”
“Only Elves get to be reborn,” Wlore told him. “And why would you want to be a troll?”
“For the love of – I was joking, all right? And enough with the Elf stuff. Please, someone, untie me. Get that tall chap with the overgrown pocket knife to…” The boy paused. Taras had looked around at him with those fathomless grey eyes, one hand still on his sword, gory rags of clothing hanging loosely from his shoulders. Suddenly he almost believed these people. There’d been something queer about that girl… and this man with the dark hair and pale face had a look about him like… like King Arthur, or something. You looked at those eyes and had to resist the urge to bow.
“Um…” he said, clearly flustered and wanting to start over. “My name’s Kad. There is good with me to meet you. I mean – ” He blinked away the words with a frustrated expression. “Nice to meet you all. Er.”
Slightly puzzled at the weird grammar, the Immies glanced at each other. “Oh, cut him loose, Taras,” sighed Dilly. “He’s not going to do anything. And if he does, just kill him.” Taras didn’t blink, most likely because that’s what he’d been thinking anyway, but Dilly laughed at Kad’s expression. “I was kidding!” she told him.
Taras was giving Kad a Look. It made him feel as though he was being turned inside out and shaken; it was the most penetrating stare he’d ever received. He gave Taras an extremely nervous grin in return and held out his hands hopefully.
Kad made a sound like “gnhi!” and stared at his hands. The cords had been neatly sliced apart, leaving a single coil around each wrist. Taras was resheathing his sword and not even looking at him; he was listening carefully to the rapid flow of Sindarin between Tuima and her sister.
“He’s very good, isn’t he?” commented Eicys under her breath.
“Er,” said Kad dazedly, “Yes.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You get used to him. Sort of.”
“Oh.” Kad shook himself. “Um, so… Who are you guys? What are you doing out here?”
“We call ourselves the Immies,” said Eicys. “Don’t ask me why. And right now we’re trying not to starve, freeze, die of infection” – she jerked her head toward Dilly, who was holding her left arm awkwardly against her chest – “get eaten by trees or wargs, or be discovered by Saruman… again.”
“Oh,” said Kad again. “Keeping busy then, what?”
“A bit,” she agreed.
“Um, you want to run that bit about carnivorous trees past me again?”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly distracted. “That’s right – where’s Ungrath?”
“My friend…” She stared around absently.
“Right,” he said. “Why don’t you just… start from the beginning. Who are you?”
“I’m Eicys,” said Eicys.
This earned her a slow stare.
“It’s a nickname,” she said. “So is everyone else’s. See, this is Eredolyn…” A girl with short auburn hair and the remains of a velvet gown gave him a cheery wave.
“Dilly…” This was the girl with the dark hair and the bandages. There was blood all over her t-shirt and her face was pale, but she grinned at him.
“Wlore…” Wlore was a veritable stick figure beneath a dirty woollen dress and oversized boots. She had an explosion of pale gold hair pulled into a ragged braid, an expression of edgy defiance, and two big knives stuck in her belt.
“Tuima, and I guess that’s her sister… And this is Taras, the chap with the pocketknife.” Kad bit his lip in an embarassed grin, and nodded to Taras. Taras nodded back. “And my sister… where’s Cebu – Oh. This is Cebu.”
Kad’s jaw dropped.
“You!” he said.
Cebu looked startled. “Um… me?”
“I – I’m your neighbor,” said Kad, pulling himself together. He nodded to Eicys “Both of you, I guess. Remember, the new kid with the funny accent?” He grinned hopefully.
“Oh!” said Cebu, with a bewildered glance at Eicys. “Ah…Of course! …So… how are things?” She’d swear she had never seen Kad in her life before.
“Not bad. I guess. Um. How’d you get here?”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story…”
“Yeh, I believe it. Where’ve you been the last week?”
“The last… What?”
“I mean – er, you know, I haven’t seen you around for a while…” He looked very awkward.
“I’ve been out here for a month!” said Cebu. “We all have!”
There was a pause. “Oh,” said Kad politely.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Er… I saw you a few days ago. That costume party, remember? I said hi.” He was looking more awkward by the minute.
“Oh. Um, really?” said Cebu, who didn’t remember anything of the sort. She pulled herself together. “But that was more than month ago. All sorts of things have happened since then!”
“Yes, it sounds like it’s been… busy,” he said, even more politely than before.
“You don’t believe me!” said Cebu indignantly. “It has been a month, hasn’t it, guys?”
“At least,” said Eredolyn.
“Feels like three,” said Dilly.
“Ungrath!” Eicys said suddenly. Everyone turned. Ungrath pushed his way out of the undergrowth, pausing to rip his tunic away from some thorns and then again to tug his foot free of a clutching root. He looked worn out and frustrated, and was nursing a nasty lump on the side of his head.
“Who’re you?” he growled at Kad.
“Ungrath, this is Kad,” said Eicys. “And that’s Linsul, Tuima’s sister.” Linsul glanced up from where she’d been talking to Tuima for so long, and froze. Tuima hissed something at her in Elvish. Slowly Linsul’s expression thawed into a very tentative smile, and she nodded, if a bit suspiciously, and turned back to her sister. The flow of Elvish moved even more rapidly than before.
“Oh, good,” muttered Ungrath.
“Kad,” said Eicys, “This is… Oh, wait. Um, what did we decide?”
“Huh?” said Kad, but the Immies were all chorusing the seven or so names they’d chosen as favorites.
“Stop!” said Ungrath a bit desperately. He rubbed his bruised head, grimacing. “Say them again.” Another clamor of names ensued, but this time Ungrath, finally managing to distinguish separate words, heard one he liked.
“Dan,” he said, over the cacophony.
There was a pause. “…Say again?” said Eredolyn.
“I like Dan,” he repeated firmly. With his curious accent – which was rapidly losing its orcish inflections – the name sounded different: the “a” was short and soft, and the “n” drawn out.
“Dann,” echoed Eicys, and smiled brilliantly. “That’s perfect.” She turned back to Kad. “This is Dann.”
Kad blinked. “I think I missed something,” he said to Eicys, but no explanation seemed forthcoming. “Um, hi, Dann,” he said carefully, offering a courteous smile to his newest, most frightening acquaintance. Dann was almost seven feet tall, with a filthy tangle of black hair, a shirt that was more holes and bloodstains than fabric, grimy mottled skin, and what looked disturbingly like fangs. People in Kad’s world purchased handguns and locked their doors at night for fear of men who looked like Dann. But he was wearing a slow, crooked smile that you almost had to like.
“Hello,” he said happily. Kad wondered about his accent. It was sort of… Russian-Australian, maybe with some Italian thrown in, and he was talking in the cautious way of a boy whose voice had just changed, even though he looked to be about eighteen.
All in all, this was the weirdest group of people he’d ever come across.
“So how’d you end up here, Kad?” asked Dilly.
“I was loading up my car for a camping trip with my uncle – I’m staying with him while I go to college – and I heard someone scream over by that forest in her backyard…” He gestured to Cebu. “So I ran over to look. I found a paintball gun and a bunch of cottonballs, which was really weird. Then I guess I got lost, because the trees all looked different – and then I ran into her…”
He’d been wandering around in the strangely dark woodland, humming nervous snatches of songs and wishing he’d brought the flashlight from his camping bag, when there was a flash of silver and something – someone – dropped out of a tree about two inches from his nose and held a knife against the corner of one eye.
Kad went cross-eyed, but nonetheless managed to see that the person in front of him was the most stunningly good-looking girl he’d ever come across. She had a complexion like ice and rose petals, masses of silvery hair, and huge silver-grey eyes. It was slightly eerie, like mist made solid.
The girl said something in language that sounded very much like…
“Cymraes d’chi?” Kad asked, very surprised. She frowned, and rattled off more of that familiar-sounding language. Kad shook his head, disappointed and confused. Then:
“What are you doing here?” she asked. She had a strong, lilting accent and a voice like flutes and harps and water. His choir director back home would have died of delight to have this girl’s voice.
“Er… I got lost,” he said. She was still holding that knife uncomfortably close. It looked like a dagger. He wondered if he could reach his pocketknife without her noticing and putting his eye out. The image was thoroughly incongruous with the pale, delicate face.
She blinked a few times, as though running his words through a mental translation. “Where are you from?” she said. The words were slightly stilted: this obviously wasn’t her native language.
“I have never heard of Wales,” she said suspiciously.
Kad’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t comment. “Will you put that knife away?” he demanded.
She didn’t move. “What is your allegiance?”
“To whom do you owe allegiance?”
“You are not one of the wild men? You do not serve Sauron?”
“Sauron… what, like as in that Lord of the Rings evil bloke?” She nodded stiffly. “Ohh,” said Kad. “This is some sort of role-playing thing? You’re one of those weird -” He stopped. It probably wasn’t wise to antagonize someone with a knife and an outfit out of Fantasy Today, especially if she dyed her hair silver. Most people dyed their hair to get rid of silver.
Besides, she was really, really, stunningly beautiful…
“For the last time – what is your allegiance?”
Kad gave her a boyish smile. “Aw, heck – I’ll be on the bad guy side, I s’pose. I always wanted to be a troll in my next life.”
She obviously did not appreciate the humor. The knife was suddenly brushing the skin beneath his chin. Kad swallowed, feeling a drop of blood slide down his neck. This had become a little too real for comfort. “Someone could get hurt with that thing,” he told her. She stared at him, grey eyes intense. “Um, okay, look,” said Kad. “I just want to go home, all right?”
Still she didn’t move.
“Ah, for the love of – Leave me alone! Go aw- ”
The world slid suddenly into oblivion. Kad’s last, indistinct thought was, I didn’t even see her move!
“Anyway, I spent the whole next day tromping around with my hands tied, getting asked the most bizzarre questions and not getting a single answer.” Kad rubbed his wrists. “I assume it was you who screamed?” He nodded at Cebu.
“I don’t know… I think it was Ere.”
“No, Eredolyn was happy about the orcs,” said Dilly drowsily.
“Not happy,” Eredolyn defended herself. “Just… you know, excited. I mean, how often do you see a real live orc?”
“Too often,” muttered Wlore. “Much better to see a real dead orc.”
Dann shifted uncomfortably, though no one besides Kad and Eicys seemed to notice. No, scratch that – Taras noticed. You got the impression he noticed everything, and he was paying special attention to Dann, who kept returning the occasional glare. There was obviously no love lost between those two.
“So you’re telling me we really are in the Lord of the Rings story?” said Kad skeptically. “Goblins and Hobbits and Elves, oh my?”
Several of the girls nodded, but Wlore said grumpily, “I don’t know what you mean, story. This is Middle-earth. It’s not like it’s… imaginary, or something.”
“Well, in our world it is imaginary,” said Cebu apologetically.
“I still don’t understand all this about other worlds,” grumbled Wlore.
“You really are serious!” Kad exclaimed suddenly. “You really believe we’re in… Tolkiendom, or something!”
“Well, actually, we’re in a fanfic by this other author – “
“Don’t confuse him,” said Cebu.
“Too late,” said Kad. He sighed. “You might as well tell me the whole thing. And is there anything to eat? I swear Cloud Lady over there lives on air.”
They exchanged glances. “There’s a little stew left…” said Eredolyn.
Kad belatedly noticed the Immies’ rather pinched-looking faces. Wlore in particular looked like an African famine victim, albeit blonde. “Never mind,” he said hastily. “I’m not really hungry. Should I – should I build up the fire, or something?”
“Thanks,” said Eicys. “It is getting really cold.” Dilly nodded absently. She looked rather ill, and even more pale than before.
“I’ll get some more wood,” muttered Dann hastily, and pushed his way back into the forest, looking a bit unsteady on his feet. Kad noticed that the trees all creaked menacingly when he came near, and swayed in a nonexistant wind. That was… not comforting.
“Tea,” said Tuima abruptly. They all looked up at her, startled. The Elf was smiling. She actually looked rather pretty when she did that. “It will be very cold tonight,” she said. “I have only rosehips and chokecherry bark, but it will be hot. And Linsul has enough supplies to feed us for a day or two.”
That got the Immies’ attention. There was a sudden bustle of activity as people dragged their makeshift seats – boulders and bits of stump – into a closer ring around their little fire. Tuima began boiling water in the helmet-pot as Linsul went through her pack for supplies. Cebu shook leaves out of their three pilfered orc-cloaks and handed them around.
A crashing, snapping noise in the undergrowth announced Dann’s return. He was dragging an enormous old log that should have taken at least three people to shift. He dropped it in the middle of the clearing and scrubbed dirty hands on his shirt without looking up, as though hoping that people would ignore him.
“We can’t burn that,” objected Taras, the faintest hint of a chill in his voice. “It’s too big.”
“Oh, right… you missed this last time, Taras,” said Eredolyn. “Just watch.” Dann gave her an embarassed look, but Eredolyn said cheerfully, “Go for it, Un–Dann.”
Dann regarded the big log with a certain amount of trepidation. He couldn’t remember ever being this tired; his head was fully of a thick, heavy ache and every muscle trembled with exhaustion just from hauling the wood back to camp, which shouldn’t have taken him enough effort to even bother mentioning. And everybody was watching him.
Dann worked his fingers into a likely-looking split in the wood and strained. Nothing happened. He braced one foot against the log; muscles bunched and knotted under his ragged tunic. Still nothing.
Dann scowled in surprise, put his head down, and heaved. With a ripping sort of crack, the log split reluctantly, though not into the neat halves he had always managed when he worked at the furnaces in Isengard. He was left with perhaps a third of the wood, scraped and bloody knuckles, and two palms full of splinters. Dann snapped or wrenched the split wood into more manageable pieces and retreated a few paces to examine his hands, still determinedly not looking at anyone.
Eredolyn grinned. Kad’s eyes were so wide they were threatening to roll straight out of his head. “You should’ve seen him before,” she murmured.
She looked a bit uncertain. “He’s… really different now from when we met him,” she said vaguely. But before Kad could ask for elaboration, she’d bounced away to join the others as Linsul produced some sort of wafer-bread wrapped in leaves. He remembered seeing something like it in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Kad was beginning to experience a dreadful, nagging doubt that these people might not be insane after all.