For a long time the girls lay quietly. Tuima was curled into a miserable ball, her back to the others. She could plainly hear their whispers: “I think we hurt her feelings.”
“What did we do?”
“You probably shouldn’t have said that about Frodo, Cebu.”
There was a pause, then… “No, Cebu – Stop that — Snap out of it!”
“Wha – oh. Sorry.”
Tuima rolled her eyes and shifted so she could see the stars, picking out the familiar constellations until the urge to continue her earlier outburst passed. She tried to take comfort in the idea that despite the fact that her companions had just doomed themselves and all Arda to annihilation, the stars, at least, would remain. She was failing miserably.
“Look,” Dilly was saying. “We have to be serious about this, you guys. We’re in real trouble. Eicys is missing, there are orcs all around us, we’ve got no way to escape and frankly nowhere to escape to, and the only person who knows what she’s doing out here is sulki… really mad at us.”
Tuima ground her teeth. “You’ve forgotten the fact that you just betrayed the free peoples of Middle-earth to slavery and destruction,” she said, without even turning around.
“Uh, yes. That too,” said Dilly lamely. She’d forgotten about Elven hearing. “What we’re trying to say is… Well, sorry, Tuima.”
The elf took a final look at the stars, sighed, and turned to face them. “It’s all right. Well, no – it isn’t. But I blame myself; I should have sent you back as soon as we reached
“But then we wouldn’t have made it to Middle-Earth!” cried Eredolyn.
Tuima gave her a look that plainly said, “Exactly.”
“We most likely wouldn’t have believed you anyway,” said Dilly reasonably.
“Most likely,” Tuima agreed, entirely too quickly.
The other three fidgeted uncomfortably in the ensuing pause.
Cebu broke the silence with a would-be cheery
comment: “Hey…The orcs seem excited about something…!”
They all turned to listen to the escalating argument, three of them very relieved to have something to focus on instead of the elf’s stony face. But their relief quickly turned to apprehension as they realized what the uruks were arguing about: the fate awaiting their prisoners.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dragging fresh hot gruel into the woods was no easy chore. But after seeing Lady Coralie’s most recent comment on Tolkien Online, and constantly running it through her head, Eicys’ mind was buzzing with excitement.
“If you see a muse, send her my way quick smart!”
“She wrote she wrote she wrote…” Eicys chanted euphorically to herself as she slogged through the tangled undergrowth. “Chapter 41 has gotta come out soon, and then no more chasing Cebu through dark woods… thank goodness!”
But a jumble of strange harsh voices jerked her out of her reverie. There was a sound like a cross between a human cursing and an animal snarling: it was the most unnatural thing she had ever heard.
“Tuima… Dilly… Eredolyn… is that you?” Eicys piped softly into the darkness. Again a grating roar of angry voices came from the trees ahead, and Eicys, shoving the warm plastic bags of gruel in her sweater to better fight her way through the brush, peered over a tangle of branches and got the surprise of her life.
A circle of huge brutish-looking creatures were bellowing furiously at one another, gripping dangerous-looking scimitars and snarling. It took a moment for Eicys to realize the horrible noise they were making was language, and one she could understand.
“One scrawny human mentions a piece of jewelry and you turn so dutifully loyal, hey?” screeched one of the smaller brutes. “I’d no be s’prised to find you was just tryin’ to cheat yer mates outta some well-deserved fun – thought you’d have `em all teh yerself this way, did you, Gharluk?”
Gharluk howled barbarically, snatched a spear from a companion, and hurled it at the speaker. The smaller creature caught the missile in his arm and toppled heavily to the ground, from which position he screamed obscenities and accusations in a tongue Eicys was relieved she didn’t know. But Gharluk just shouted over the uproar: “Anyone else?”
Several of the orcs – Eicys had decided in shock that they could hardly be anything else – hefted crude weapons, but no one moved forward. After a pause, one of them asked in a snarling whine, “Why can’t we have some fun wi’ `em – just a little, hey, Captain? We could give `em to the master after, wi’ none the wiser.”
“I’m takin’ no chances with any vermin as what know about the master’s Halflings,” Gharluk growled.
“Gone soft, are ye, Captain?” hissed an orc with an enormous scar across his face. “C’mon, now, we could just have one of them… this girlie here, say.” He leered at someone lying in the shadow of an enormous tree.
“Dilly!” gasped Eicys in horror. Now she could make out other forms, three others, one of whose flyaway red hair marked her plainly as Eicys’ sister, Cebu. Eicys clenched her fists. These beasts had no right to tie up Cebu! That was a privilege reserved for her sister alone.
Eicys cast about frantically for a weapon, anything… but all she had were the bags of hot gruel. She began tugging one out, but froze in terror as she saw the scarred orc slowly wrench back his crossbow and point it tauntingly at each of the girls in turn. They stared up at him with varying expressions of defiance, fear, and – in Eredolyn’s case – fascination. “It looks just like Lurtz’s bow, doesn’t it?” she whispered to Cebu.
The orc started. “How d’ye know about Lurtz?” he demanded. “Talk!” His grin broadened maliciously, and he pulled the arrow back further.
“Enough!” bellowed Gharluk. “It’s just more proof that they’s valuable. We’s takin’ `em to the master, unspoiled. But I’ll put in a word fer some brave uruks what deserve some fun. If he don’t want `em, I’ll tell Sharkey to give `em back to us.”
His words were met with a roar of approval, and the scarred orc nodded reluctantly and shot his arrow into the ground at Dilly’s feet. She flinched and the brutes roared with unfeeling laughter before seizing the captives. Cebu stumbled and fell with her face next to the forgotten arrow, and lay there panting until she was grabbed and shoved upright with the others in the center of the clearing.
“Now march, ye maggots, or the fun’ll start here an’ now,” said Gharluk, curling a whip lazily through his fingers. He snapped it at their legs and the four jumped away from the lash, beginning their march toward Isengard.
For a long time, Eicys followed at a careful distance, walking quietly and thinking hard. But apparently she wasn’t walking quietly enough, or the orcs had some other sense that alerted them to her presence, because the captain suddenly raised a fist and the company halted. He held a quiet conversation with a small red-eyed orc that Tuima recognized as a tracker. Her sharp ears caught snatches of Gharluk’s instructions: ” – Another one – ” “Bring back…” “Call if you need – ”
The elf’s heart leapt, then as quickly sank. Eicys was out there, and free – but for how long? She hissed the news to the others before the orc captain turned around, fingering his whip threateningly. With a suspicious glare at the four, he called out orders to halt and rest, muttering about defense being more difficult on the move.
The girls sagged against each other, panting and nursing the sores left by the restraining bonds on their ankles.
“Cebu, you’re bleeding!” said Dilly suddenly. Indeed, a trickle of red was running from the corner of Cebu’s mouth.
The redhead nodded and grimaced. “Itchy,” she said, her voice oddly muffled, then bent her head to her wrists. It looked as though she were gnawing at the ropes.
“Cebu, what’re you doing?” asked Eredolyn curiously.
Cebu looked up, and they saw a black point protruding from her mouth like a bizarre tongue. “I shnap’d the head off tha’ ahrrow,” she explained thickly. “I’sh really shar’.” She returned to hacking at the ropes, her hair swaying madly around her face as she sawed. Suddenly, Snap!
“What was that?” asked Tuima, startled.
“At wis un of my rohts.”
“I think she said, `that was one of my ropes’,” translated Eredolyn.
“Ah…” Tuima watched the girl sawing at the last fraying strand binding her wrists, then commented wistfully, “You do realize that it’s a common practice with orcs to dip their arrows in poison?”
Cebu looked up, shocked, then violently spat out the arrowhead. “You could have said something earlier!” she snapped.
“I thought everyone knew that,” the elf said in tones of mild surprise.
“You know something, Tuima?” Dilly said conversationally. “You’re a jerk.”
Tuima looked taken aback, then smoothed her features into an expression of elven calm that made Dilly’s blood boil. Cebu ignored them both, scrabbling in the dirt to retrieve the arrowhead. “Just one more strand…” she muttered, straining, then lost her balance and collapsed as an orc kicked her unexpectedly in the ribs.
“Stop lickin’ rocks!” snarled the orc. “And what was that snapping noise?”
“Um…” Eredolyn started, but she was interrupted by the return of the tracker orc. He shambled triumphantly into the clearing, bearing a shredded and bloody sweater and a plastic bag that slowly dripped gruel into the awful silence.
“Eicys!” whispered Cebu. “Oh no… Eicys!”