Eicys woke up early, as is usual when sleeping out-of-doors. What little sky could be seen through Fangorn’s dense canopy was a sullen, lowring grey, but it was surprisingly warm, sandwiched next to her sister and the fire. She blinked around at the others, huddled in various stages of unconsciousness, all of them with leaves in their hair and dirt on their clothes. The notorious exceptions were Taras, who was awake and building up the fire, and the two Elves, who might have slept on eiderdown and silk for how flawless they both looked. They were talking quietly in Sindarin, exactly as they had been when Eicys fell asleep.
She stretched to ease the stiffness in her shoulders, and was distracted by Kad, who mumbled something in an odd language, flopped one arm around as though searching for a blanket, and finally sat up. He had a big leaf stuck to his cheek and his dark hair stuck in every direction.
“Oh, no,” he moaned, and flopped down again. “Wake me up when it all turns back into modern America, iawn?”
“Yown?” echoed Eicys, puzzled.
“`Okay’,” translated Kad, curling up smaller against the chill.
“In what language?” yawned Cebu, who was just waking up.
Kad promptly sat up again, scrubbed a sleeve over his face, and looked nonchalant. “Welsh,” he said.
“You’re from Wales?”
“Yeah,” he grinned.
“Neat!” said Cebu. “What part?”
He looked impressed. “You know much about Wales?” he asked eagerly.
“Um… no, actually. Sorry.”
“Oh.” He yawned widely to cover his disappointment. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Whatever we can find,” said Eicys, picking up one of their canteens. “Mostly we’ve been eating boiled leaves and roots and stuff like that. We had a rabbit the other day.” Kad looked dismayed. “You have a caterpillar in your hair,” Eicys told him. “Hey, Taras, we’d better go for water again soon.”
Kad shook his head upside down until the squiming offender fell off, then picked it up and put it on a tree nearby. “Will you and Cebu go again?” Taras was asking.
“Sure,” said Eicys. “But we were kinda thinking… it might be nice to take everybody down there. We could have a sort of wash day; do some laundry, that kind of thing.”
“Haircuts and stuff,” Cebu agreed.
Taras grinned. Two pairs of knees wobbled dangerously. They’d never seen one of those from him before. “I wouldn’t mind getting rid of this, that’s for sure,” he said, rubbing ruefully at his beard. “Maybe I’ll ask Tuima for one of her knives.”
Cebu made a doubtful noise. “You might have better luck asking Wlore for hers.”
“Wlore sleeps with her knives,” Taras chuckled. “Besides, Elven blades are always sharper. Better steel.” He rubbed the pommel of his sword absently.
“We wouldn’t know, I guess,” said Cebu. “Not much by way of weaponry back home.”
“Kad has a knife,” said Taras.
Kad looked astonished, and defensive. “How’d you know that?”
A slight smile. “I… notice things.”
“No kidding,” he muttered. “Well, it’s just a Swiss Army knife.”
“You were in an army?” Taras asked suspiciously.
“No… It’s a type of pocket knife, see?” He flipped out a blade and handed it to the Gondorian.
Taras was intrigued. “We have folding knives at home, but nothing like this.” He spun the knife deftly between his fingers and examined the hinge. “It’s well made.”
“My dad gave it to me at the airport, when I was going off to university in the US. Then he had a row with Security because I couldn’t take it on carry-on.” He grinned reminiscently.
“Um… never mind.” He took the knife back from Taras. “Wash day today, then? I can’t wait, I’ve been two days sleeping in these clothes.”
He found himself at the business end of two slow glares from the girls. “I keep sticking my foot in my mouth, don’t I?” he said with an appealing grin. “I’ll shut up now.”
“No, you’ve got a cool accent,” grinned Eredolyn, who had been listening. “Keep talking.”
This, of course, shut Kad up quite effectively. His ears went red and he couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. Eicys and Cebu giggled – Kad’s ears went redder – and set about clearing up their meager gear.
In the end, the Immies decided to go along with Cebu’s idea of several days ago, and change campsites entirely so as to be closer to the water. This raised two problems. One was the wargs, whose nasty tempers hadn’t been improved by three days without proper food. The other was Dilly.
“I am perfectly capable of walking half a mile,” she insisted.
“Dilly, you only woke up properly yesterday.”
“I am fine.”
“You always say that,” Eredolyn objected. “Remember that time we were hiking and you twisted your ankle at the top of the mountain?”
“Yeah,” said Cebu, “and you hiked almost the whole way down until Ere noticed you limping.”
“See? It wasn’t a big deal!”
“Only Dilly,” sighed Eredolyn.
“We could put her on a warg…” suggested Eicys.
“No,” said several people simultaneously, Dilly among them.
“We could take turns carrying – “
“I can walk!” Dilly growled. “I broke my collarbone, not my back!” They ignored her.
“Maybe a litter…”
Dilly struggled to her feet and hissed in Eicys’ ear, “Which way to the stream?” Eicys pointed. Dilly promptly started off in that direction, walking steadily.
“Dilly!” called Tuima with a healer’s irritability at disobedient patients.
Taras grinned again. “All right, all right, you can walk,” he called. Dilly smiled smugly and sat down again. Taras turned to the Immies and murmured, “And if any of you go faster than snail’s pace there will be trouble.” There was a chorus of vigorous nods.
“Now about the wargs…”
Eventually they decided to let the animals go. Taras didn’t agree: he argued that there was bound to be some orcs in Isengard who spoke Wargish beyond Tuima’s grasp of the invective, and the last thing the Immies needed was a mounted pursuit. It was rare for any of the Immies to go against Taras’ decisions – he was indisputed leader of their little group – but Wlore was dead set against killing anything that was tied up, even if it was a warg. Taras relented after Tuima pointed out how unlikely the creatures were to return to the much-hated caverns under Isengard anyway – even if they managed to avoid being killed by the trees without the Elf there. “At least this way they have a fighting chance,” agreed Wlore.
“A slim one.”
The Eorling shrugged. “So? They’re wargs. They eat horses. – And people.” She untied the three animals – bashing one of them on the snout when it snapped at her – and drove them off with a few kicks. They did not seem at all averse to leaving.
“What if they follow us?” asked Cebu.
Wlore watched the wargs slink away into the forest. “I don’t think they like us much,” she said smugly. “And besides, why attack a well-armed group when there’s easier prey?”
“The third warg is pretty sick,” said Wlore. “The other two have been watching him. Horrible things.”
“Oh…” said Cebu, whose heart was big enough to pity even a warg.
“C’mon,” said Eicys, looking nauseous. “Let’s get out of here.”
Dilly wasn’t stupid. After a few minutes of walking she caught Taras’ arm and said in exasperation, “You told them to go slow, didn’t you?”
“Who, me?” He grinned. Dilly waved a finger at him.
“Shame on you. I will come beat you up as soon as my arm works properly again.”
“Yes, really. It should be easy – by the time my arm is better, you’ll be dead anyway from not sleeping.”
Taras paused. “I’ve slept,” he said.
“When?” she asked. He waved vaguely. “That’s what I thought,” said Dilly. “You look ready to fall over.”
“I have no intention of falling over,” he said dryly. “I feel fine.”
“They say I’m stubborn,” Dilly grumbled.
“Well…” said Taras pointedly.
“Right, then,” said Dilly. “The next thing I’m going to be stubborn about is making sure you get some sleep tonight.”
“I’ll get Tuima to drug you if I have to.”
That brought him up short. “You will not.” She smiled serenely. “Dilly, what if something happens?” he hissed.
“Then you’ll miss it. U–Dann is pretty good at fighting, we’ll have him take care of things.”
“The orc?” Taras demanded, thoroughly appalled.
There was a faint hiss of breath behind them, and Dilly turned to see Dann glaring murderously at Taras’ back. “Nicely done, Taras,” she said.
He ignored this, and said very grudgingly, “I’ll go to sleep if we set up a decent watch system. And I get first watch tonight.”
“Okay,” said Dilly happily. “So, there’s… what, ten of us? We can do every other night…”
“You are not going to stand watch until you’re healed,” he said severely.
“I’ll have Tuima drug you,” he threatened, biting back a smile.
She stared at him. “Augh!” she exclaimed, stifling laughter. “Stubborn!”
The smile grew into a grin. “Exactly,” said Taras.
* * * * *
The Immies were feeling good. The new campsite was much nicer: more open and friendly-feeling, with a small crystal brook and a rocky overhang for shelter. Everyone had had a wash – the Elves were now looking so perfect it set everyone’s teeth on edge – and Taras’d had his promised shave. Dilly had to nudge three different people in the ribs to stop them gawping.
Now they sat around a small fire to lounge, chat, drip-dry, and munch on the remaining lembas. Life was good. There was a bright, clean scent to the air that promised adventure, and shafts of golden sunlight poured from between the clouds to puddle around the roots of the sentient trees. Everyone was beginning to remember they were in Middle-earth – and while it was darkly, brutally real, it was still the starlit land of legend they’d all fallen in love with long before they’d ever even seen it.
“Well,” said Eredolyn brightly, swallowing the last of her lembas. “Who’s up for some exploring? It’s a beautiful day!”
“It’s going to rain,” said Tuima.
“It’s still a beautiful day. Come on – maybe we’ll see an Ent or something!”
“Probably not,” said Dilly.
Eredolyn flapped her hand. “Practicality. Bah. You guys coming?”
Wlore hopped up promptly, followed by Cebu. Kad stood up immediately thereafter, licking his fingers for the last of his lembas.
“I don’t know if we should…” said Eicys, who’d received a crash course in caution from her stint in the orc barracks.
“We’ve been serious and careful for way too long,” said Eredolyn. “Come on, just for half an hour or so. Maybe we can find something else to eat. We won’t do any good just hanging around, anyway.”
“Well… all right…” agreed Eicys, who was in fact not at all unwilling to be persuaded. “Coming, Dann?”
Dann opened his mouth uncertainly – and stopped at an abrupt movement from near the fire. Both Elves had stood up together, in the queer way of Elves: using muscles in consecutive groups, so that they appeared to melt bonelessly upward. “Those two are weird,” Kad muttered under his breath. He immediately found himself pinned by twin Elvish stares.
“They also have very good hearing,” Eicys murmured. Tuima looked smug.
“You guys coming, too?” asked Cebu.
A frown creased Linsul’s perfect forehead. “`Guise’?” she asked her sister in a thickly accented undertone. There was a murmured explanation in Sindarin. Linsul laughed musically and smiled at the Immies. “Oh – no, we are not coming,” she said.
“We are going,” Tuima clarified crisply. She pulled off her cloak in a whirl of fabric and folded it neatly; the hilts of her knives stuck up over either shoulder like wing nubs.
“You’re going?” Eredolyn echoed. She wasn’t entirely successful at sounding disappointed. “Where? Back to Lothlorien?”
“Yes, we are going home,” said Tuima. “Soon, hopefully. But don’t worry – we’ll see that you get home first.” She smiled into a pause not exactly brimming with enthusiasm. “We have realized that Kad’s trail will lead us to the… door… to your world. Linsul and I will travel without you, so that we can reach it before the rain falls.” She glanced at the sky, and continued with rather more satisfaction than was necessary: “We’ll mark the trail, and come to fetch you when we’re done. You will all be home again within two days.”