The Immies were grouped in little huddles around their fire, feeling weary and comfortable. The night was as cold as Tuima had predicted, but the flames were warm and golden-bright, the herbal tea was hot, and their stomachs were full for the first time in what seemed like years. There had been enough to eat even for Dann – no laughing matter – though he didn’t find lembas nearly as nice as the others did. He coughed and choked and muttered things, which earned him more wary, worried looks from Linsul and a pointed lack of any reaction at all from Taras.
Most of the others, however, had polished off their portions quickly. Eredolyn did so with a grin that said nothing could ever bother her again – she had tasted real lembas, made in Lothlorien, and was now sitting around a campfire with two Elves, a Rohirric girl, a Gondorian, and an ex-uruk-hai. Life was good.
Cebu obviously agreed with the sentiment, as she sat humming happily under her breath. Usually this was an almost incessant habit of hers, but their circumstances hadn’t been exactly conducive to cheery Broadway numbers for the past while. Across the fire, Kad was absently humming the harmony as he picked burrs off his sweatshirt. He had a very good voice.
Next to Kad, Dilly had finally given in and fallen asleep, nodding off onto Taras’ shoulder. She would undoubtedly be mortified when she woke up, but for now she slept soundly, long dark hair spilling across his chest, a single cloak wrapped around them both. Her head was tipped so that he could see the sewn-up gash at the base of her neck and the horrible bruising that spread from chin to shoulderblade.
In the uncertain light of the fire, Taras looked down at the girl with a strange glint in his eyes. The Southern prince was always restless, someone who was used to being aware of a hundred things at once and feeling strongly about all of them; he noticed everything. But right now he was focused only on Dilly, and the look in his eyes was one so unreadably intense that mere expression seemed superfluous.
Fortunately for Taras’ usual controlled façade, only one person was watching him. Unfortunately for the same, that person was Dann.
The erstwhile uruk first sneered, then frowned, then looked away with a feeling of confused unhappiness. He didn’t like thinking of Taras in any way other than the familiar dislike. And there was something about that look…
Eicys, dozing contentedly next to Cebu, looked up from the shelter of their rather foul-smelling cloak and saw her friend sitting in the shadows, as close to the fire’s warmth as he could get without too much of its light spilling onto him. He was drooping with exhaustion but wearing an expression like distilled headache and trying restlessly to remove the splinters from his big hands. She smiled fondly and got up to go sit by him. “Here, let me,” she said, and took his hand.
Dann jolted immediately into an uncomfortable stiffness; she could feel him awkward and rigid at her side. She sighed and ignored it, concentrating on his splinter-filled palm. And her friend was simply too weary to stay tense for long – he scooted a bit further away, slumped down again, and listened vaguely to Eicys’ low chatter, his mind running on the same futile frustrating track over and over again, picking at the wall in his memory.
“…But anyway,” Eicys was saying, “It fits you really well.”
“What?” he said, thinking that nothing he owned fit him at all anymore.
“Your name,” she answered, and was happy to see she had distracted him from whatever he’d been thinking about. “Dann.”
He smiled slowly. “It’s a good name,” he said.
“It’s a perfect name,” she declared. “You look like a Dann.”
His expression grew into that shy, brilliant, slightly surprised-looking smile she’d only seen once before, when he’d learned she was his friend. Eicys felt like hugging herself in satisfaction: her friend was clearly thrilled, in the wary way that he always approached happiness. True to form, he added a little uncertainly, “I never knew you could just change your name like tha’.”
“Well, Ungrath wasn’t even a real name,” she said. “And it certainly wasn’t your name.”
“It’s what I am,” he grunted. His fingers curled reflexively as Eicys pulled out a long splinter.
“It is not,” said Eicys. “It’s what happened to you.”
There was a reflective silence. Eicys glanced up briefly. “Dann?”
He blinked. “Sorry,” he said. “Just thinkin’… Ouch!”
“Sorry,” said Eicys.
“‘S all right,” he said. “It’s my fault, I forgot my skin’s gone different. I never used to get splinters.”
She looked up. “You’ve done that before?”
He shrugged. “I used to work feedin’ the furnaces in Isen-” He broke off as the trees nearby hissed menacingly at him. “Um.”
Eicys gave an exasperated, sympathetic laugh. “Nasty trees. Don’t listen. Tuima’s the only one who likes them, and that’s all you need to know.”
“‘Bout the Elf or the trees?”
“Both!” laughed Eicys. She hesitated a moment. Ruddy firelight smoothed the ugliness from Dann’s face. There was, as she’d predicted days ago, a scar over his eyebrow. She touched it with a frown and didn’t notice him shiver. “Do you… have a lot of these?” she asked quietly.
He clamped a hand protectively over his left arm without seeming aware of it. “A few.”
“Ungr-” She caught herself. “Dann,” she said, and he relaxed faintly. “I never said thank you for…”
“Don’t,” he said. “Tha’s not… I didn’ want… er.” His head hurt and his muscles trembled with the dull ache of fatigue, and she was sitting much too close to him.
“I know,” she said. “But thank you anyway.”
“You’re welcome,” he mumbled at his knees.
Eicys smiled and let go of his hand. “The rest are too little to get out in this light,” she said. “Sorry.” He shrugged. “I’ll try tomorrow. You should get some sleep. You look half-dead.”
He frowned, and then suddenly he laughed, a bit awkwardly, and dragged a hand across his eyes. “Only half?”
Eicys’ mouth opened uncertainly, then her eyes narrowed and she said, “Not funny, Dann.” But there was a laugh in her voice as well. Dann’s crooked grin flashed again. “Go to sleep,” Eicys ordered.
He cocked his head. “You know, you’re awful bossy for someone almost two feet shorter’n me.”
She wagged a finger. “Right now, mister!”
Dann ducked his head in feigned meekness, but there was a gleam of teeth and eyes beneath the shadow of his tangled hair. He was laughing again. Eicys’ eyes danced with humor. “Good night,” she said pointedly, and with one last smile got up and made her way back to Cebu’s side, where she was welcomed back into the warm and smelly cloak.
“What was that?” Cebu asked sleepily.
“Well, you two seemed to have something funny going on,” said Cebu with a yawn. “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard him laugh?”
Eicys paused. Very slowly, she said, “You know what… me too. I mean like a real, happy sort of laugh.” She looked at her sister. “How depressing is that?”
“Very,” said Cebu wholeheartedly. She frowned. “Taras hardly ever laughs either,” she said. “Neither do Tuima or Wlore.”
“Wlore does sometimes,” objected Eicys.
Eicys thought. “No, not really.”
Cebu sighed. “This place is sure depressing,” she said. “Everybody’s so edgy all the time.”
“It’s getting better, though,” Eicys said thoughtfully. “I mean, remember that first night?”
“I try not to,” Cebu laughed. “Eicys…we should do something. Cheer everybody up, you know?”
“What should we do?” Eicys asked, with a smile at how hugely… Cebu-ish… her sister was.
Cebu thought for a minute. “I’ll tell you what would make me happy: feeling clean for once. Maybe all the girls could head down to that stream and wash up a bit. Do laundry and stuff.”
“Brr,” said Eicys, but she smiled. “Better than nothing, I guess. And we could give Taras and Dann a haircut.”
“And Taras a shave.”
“I don’t know… a knife? Don’t bother me with details, I’m imagining a nice clean Taras without that beard.”
“Mmm,” agreed Eicys instantly. Both of them looked across the fire at the Gondorian. Dilly had snuggled closer against the cold, and he was holding her as though afraid of breaking something. She mumbled something they couldn’t hear, but it made one of Taras’ rare, melting smiles flash across his face, and he put his hand on Dilly’s hair and closed his eyes briefly, wearing an expression they’d never seen from him before.
It was peace.
“Lucky, lucky, lucky Dilly,” sighed Cebu.
“No kidding,” Eicys said dreamily. “I guess there are upsides to Middle-earth after all?”
“It is very nice to look at,” said Cebu blandly. The sisters giggled and leaned against each other, murmuring occasional nonsense and slowly drifting off to sleep.
Eicys and Cebu were not the only ones watching Taras. Dann sat with his head in his hands, looking at each of the little band in turn. Tuima and Linsul hadn’t stopped talking the whole time, but it was all in Elvish, and he didn’t understand a word.
Most of the other Immies were asleep or close to it; Taras seemed to be the only one fully awake. And when he closed his eyes for that tiny contented moment, Dann came to the realization that that was the first time he’d ever seen the Gondorian off his guard. As far as Dann knew, Taras hadn’t slept at all since the escape. Even now, he’d gone back to his usual vigilance, eyes scanning the forest ceaselessly – and returning to Dann rather more often than anywhere else. Dann growled, and the sound was strange in his new chest.
Taras’ eyes narrowed fractionally, but Dilly sighed and he relaxed again, looking at her with that intense, careful, happy expression that said nothing could ever really go wrong again so long as she was there, and safe.
He loves her, Dann realized suddenly. He looks at her like I…
…Like I look… at…
Dann sat bolt upright, his eyes snapping to Eicys’ sleeping form. Oh no, he thought frantically.
She was curled next to her sister, breathing gently. Golden eyelashes swept the soft curve of her cheek; the firelight picked out copper glints in her hair.
I – I’m – Oh no. Oh no, no, no. I can’t, I’m not… And then finally he put words around that awful, nagging little thought: She would never…
Dann dropped his head into his hands with a little groan of purest agony, feeling again the shock of smooth human skin. For a wild moment he almost hoped – but one glance at his oversized hands, filthy, misshapen, still faintly mottled with orcish grey and red… He looked back to the sleeping Eicys with something like despair. I’ve ruined everything, he thought incoherently. It wasn’ enough to have a friend?
Eicys’ hair was falling slowly forward into her face; it stirred softly with her breathing. Beneath that glinting curtain she had a long scratch on her forehead and smudges of mud on her cheek. He wanted to wipe them off, he wanted to touch her, he wanted it to be him she was curled up against to sleep. That was absurd: he avoided touching anyone as a rule, since it usually only meant a fight anyway. Actually, he’d avoided touching Eicys in particular, ever since the exhilarated confusion of finding himself alive again – he hadn’t known why, exactly.
Now he did. Still sick with shock, Dann sat resolutely on his hands and looked away. I’ve ruined everything…
The fire burned gently down to a rosy glow, the figures around it no more than shadows against the deeper black of Fangorn.
Dann woke up fast, staring around at the night-drenched forest. Another wave of pain ran through him, wrenching a gasp from his throat. He gritted his teeth and stumbled to his feet, but he’d only made it a few yards from the campsite when the pain pounced on him again. He staggered, clutched at a tree, and was shaken off to land clumsily in the leaves. Dann curled up tightly, squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his face to the ground.
Eventually his breathing began to steady again, and he uncurled stiffly, grimacing, to see a booted foot only inches from his face.
It belonged to Taras.
“Are you all right?” the Gondorian asked as Dann shoved himself upright, fast.
“Ah, go rescue a baby bird, tark,” he spat, as the world splashed and spun around him horribly. “I know you don’ give a -“
Dann scrambled backwards as the southern Prince moved in a blur of ebony hair and grey prison rags, his sword exploding almost noiselessly from its sheath. Half an instant later there was the muted shriek of metal on metal, and then the more hideous noise of metal through flesh.
Across the clearing, mere feet from the still sleeping Immies, a single orc – the last of its party to survive Fangorn forest – keeled over sideways with Taras’ slender Elven sword buried obscenely in its chest. Taras stood still a moment, his own chest heaving, and then strode across the clearing to retrieve his blade.
Dann’s shocked hiss followed him: “How’d you do tha’? Tha’s impossible!” It was. No one should be able to throw a sword like that.
Taras paused with one hand wrapped around the hilt, and gave the erstwhile uruk one of his cool grey stares. “Impossible?” he echoed. He planted a foot on the orc’s chest and yanked his sword free. Blood black as ink ran down the blade. “Shall we talk about impossible?” he asked quietly, and Dann pulled his scarred arm close against a chest stained black as the sword with orcish blood – his own. The point was well made.
He growled something unrepeatable at Taras’ back as the prince cleaned and resheathed his blade, kicked the orc into a more manageable position, and slung it over one shoulder with a grunt of effort. He was surprisingly strong for his slender build. After only a minute or two, the Gondorian reappeared, minus the body. There were fresh black bloodstains on his already bloodied shirt, but no other sign that anything had happened at all. The Immies’ fire still glowed gently, throwing a faint light over the slumbering forms that surrounded it.
It had been two days – three nights – since they’d escaped; how much of that time had been spent with a single pair of eyes as their only watch – one restless, wary, guilt-driven man pacing noiselessly around the campsite with his hand on a dead elf’s sword? How many other attacks had been deflected, unnoticed? Dann noticed in unpleasant surprise that Taras had dark smudgy circles under his eyes, and he was paler than even his prison pallor ought to account for.
He was rather more surprised at how little he cared. Dann realized that he hated Taras. Watching Taras’ effortless, deadly grace, feeling that suspicious glare boring into his own back – most of all, remembering the little embarassed, laughing gleam in Eicys’ eyes whenever the tark spoke to her – Dann hated Taras more than anything in the world.
He curled in on himself, deliberately turning his back to the Immies so that he wouldn’t catch himself staring at Eicys again. Exhaustion did its work again quickly: he slumped off into troubled dreams.
Across the clearing, firelight smoldered quietly in a pair of sleepless grey eyes.