Hello, kind reader! If you remembered the existence of this story at all after January I'm sure you thought I'd either given up on it or died (unless you follow me on Tumblr, in which case you'd know that I'm definitely not dead but I am lazy). Thanks so much for your patience, and especially for just continuing to read, it means a lot to me! Extra special shoutout to canadiangold, eschscholzia, FebruarySong, and a guest for their reviews! (Urrgh it really cramps my style that I can't use multiple exclamation points in a row on here. Each of you reviewers has been so lovely and you deserve multiple exclamation points, darn it!) Anyway, here's Chapter Four.
Chapter Three Recap: Saruman is interrupted from brooding in his tower during a blizzard by the arrival of Ulga. Intending to rescue the snow-caked traveller, Saruman inadvertently transports her, her Wolf, and himself, to a magical and mind-addling forest. Other strange events ensue in this forest, until all three of our characters collide into each other and fall in a pool.
Chapter Four: New Orc In Town (Or, Saruman's Maia Moment)
First they were falling, then they were drowning, then flying. It was impossible to make sense of their surroundings because everything changed too fast. There was still the maddening paralysis, a side effect of the Rings. Saruman knew from his reading that the originals on which these were based had not had this side effect. Well, these could do what they were intended to, and he supposed that was the important part. When he got back home he'd have to see about tinkering with them a little, trying to fix this flaw, but at the moment there was (literally) nothing he could do. He was uncomfortably sandwiched between a loathsome, smelly Orc and its equally loathsome, smelly dog. The animal's enormous mouth gaped open—it had been just about to close on him before they all fell—and he thought the odor that emanated from it was practically enough to make his beard curl.
By the time the vortex or whatever it was had spit them out and onto solid ground, Saruman's stomach was churning and roiling again. He turned and doubled over, but there was nothing left in his stomach to expel. It heaved weakly and he gagged, but that was the worst of it.
Ulga looked torn and hesitant. She'd taken a step towards him, as if wanting to help, but then it seemed she'd remembered what he was and what she was, and she stepped back again, not wishing to frighten him. He hadn't seen her yet; he was looking the other way. While he was composing himself, she took a few steps forward and looked around her.
She couldn't frame words, either in any of the dialects of Orkish she spoke or in the more complicated and nuanced Common Tongue, to describe what met her eyes and ears. It was completely, utterly, foreign and incomprehensible.
It seemed that there were buildings, buildings, buildings, as far as the eye could see. None of them looked like any buildings she had ever seen. The near ones were so ornate, and all painted such funny colors! Some of them blue, or pink, or yellow even. Others were more sensible, constructed of red bricks. The ones on this street were fairly small and orderly, bordered by prim green lawns and bushes, but if she looked above and beyond them, in the distance, she could see in stark contrast many-windowed towers, grey and imposing. Ulga had seen a tower or two in her day, but never so many in one place before, and never any like these.
The sky was blue and the sun was fairly close to its zenith, indicating the time to be likely either late morning or early afternoon, and there was a faint breeze, a little too chilly for comfort. Our trio was situated in a shady space between the two houses at the end of the street, on the top of a steep hill. Far away in almost the opposite direction of the towers Ulga could see a body of water dotted with a few little boats. It made her think of the things she'd heard about the ocean, that far-off glimmering thing of legend and of dreams. Could it be? She so wanted to see the ocean.
But the varieties of buildings and even that tantalizing glimpse of blue water were not the most extraordinary things to see, not at all. If Ulga craned her neck around the corner to look at the street perpendicular to the one she was on, she could see that there were giant metal…things of all shapes and sizes and colors, just careening down the road! Careening down the road fit to crash into each other and the buildings and the figures walking around. But they never did. The careening metal things seemed to be sentient, to know not to crash. The ones coming stayed on one side of the road, and the ones going stayed on the other, and the figures stayed on the raised edges of the road. But even the Careening Metal couldn't hold her attention long, because now she was too busy staring at the figures.
There were Humans here! In fact most, maybe all of the figures, appeared to her to be Human. One or two of them seemed to lead tiny, furry dogs on ropes, how cute!
It was then that her mind without warning yanked her out of the present and she remembered everything that had very recently happened, and she had to sit down. Her head spun and her knees felt weak (hence the abrupt sitting down), although both these sensations could have also been caused by the sun. Even indirect sunlight didn't always agree with her very well, although thinking back, the sunlight in that forest with all the big puddles hadn't made her feel like this.
At first this day had been like a dream, the kind in which things happened and one instantly moved from place to place without thinking or questioning why or how. But this had been no dream, the memory of it was coming back too sharp, and here she was just whirling around to Sauron knew what kinds of places. And that strange sharkû with the weak stomach kept following her! It was creepy. And however was she supposed to get back to where she'd been now?
But did she even want to? She'd been stuck in the middle of a blizzard, blinded, frostbitten, and searching for a Wizard who was probably no more than a rumor. Whereas this place seemed…nice? Well, not exactly, but it had Humans, and that was always a good thing. Not, however, always a safe thing, she recollected. She wondered if they'd try to kill her here.
Which brought her back to the most immediate question, which was to figure out what to do about the sharkû…
Meanwhile Saruman was thinking that his most immediate question was to figure out what to do about the smelly Orc. But suddenly his thoughts were cut short and he forgot altogether about the smelly Orc and the smelly Wolf and the city and his entire past life and even his names. Something very strange happened, but before we detail this, we must first stop to explain something weird about Maiar.
Usually they are above the human foibles of lust and romance and whatnot, but occasionally one of them will fall in love. Of course they can't go about such a thing subtly or normally. To be fair, most Humans can't even do that. But with Maiar (and sometimes Elves), it's ten times worse. If the reader is familiar with the story of Melian (a Maia) and Elwë (an Elf, later known as Thingol), he might understand what the narrator is talking about. The two of them meet in a forest and lock eyes. They fall under a spell. Their eyes stay locked for an interminable amount of time, long enough for saplings to become full-grown trees. It sounds more awkward than romantic in this narrator's humble opinion, but to each their own. Their relationship apparently did not suffer any from the strangeness of that first meeting because they were married for an even more interminable amount of time, until Thingol was killed by dwarves over a dispute concerning a very pretty necklace. But that's a different story and now we've gotten off topic.
Right there, in an alley in a city called San Francisco, Saruman had a Maia Moment. The very ground beneath him shook (this was actually a small, naturally caused earthquake, but it added a wonderful effect). Across the street was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He couldn't breathe.
She was walking, quickly and with purpose. She was wearing a sweater with an ankle-length skirt and boots. Her skin was a healthy tan tone which brought out the clean, bright whiteness of her hair, wound into a pretty but practical looking bun just below the crown of her head. She might have been in her seventies.
Time slowed down. A Machine On Wheels in the part of the road nearest to where he stood on the sidewalk crawled slowly by. Music blared from somewhere inside it. At laaaaaast…my looooove has come along…my lonely days…are over…and life is like a soooong…
The Machine passed. He blinked.
He'd always thought people who fell in love foolish and weak. He'd never understood them. Why embarrass oneself in such a way? Why limit one's freedom? Why make oneself so vulnerable, why put oneself so at the mercy of another flawed being? It all seemed completely nonsensical, so of course he'd always believed himself well above it. But in the blink of an eye, in this odd, ugly place where he understood nothing, suddenly he understood everything.
His Maia Moment was different from Melian's. Instead of being rooted in place he moved, without thinking about it, without even realizing it. His body seemed to move for him. Before he knew it he was stepping into the street. She was moving too fast and he had to catch up with her, nothing else mattered. Everything depended on this.
"Wait!" thundered Ulga in some odd hybrid of a bellow and a screech. There was a Careening Metal coming and the poor sharkû was going to get hit, and she felt oddly protective of him, even if he was creepy. He seemed a bit touched, like he needed someone to look after him, and maybe she could help him.
With a bit of effort, she too rose and with wobbly legs darted into the road, although hers was a safer dart, looking both ways first and saving the actual darting part for when the one Careening Metal had passed, just missing the sharkû as he obliviously strode in front of it.
Warg darted after her, just in front of a second Careening Metal, but miraculously all three of them made it across the street in one piece, quite alright except for their startled nerves at the reception of some loud honks from that second Careening Metal. Ulga glanced at it over her shoulder, quickly but closely. She did a double take. She could just see through the shiny bit at the front of the Careening Metal, the part she had at first glance taken for a large eye. But it wasn't an eye, it was a window, and instead of a pupil and an iris, she thought she saw the shapes of two Humans, their features partially obscured by the glare of the sun against the shiny surface. They must have been controlling the thing from inside, how fascinating! She tried to smile at them quickly, but the sharkû was getting away and she had to hurry. She just caught sight of one of the Humans thrusting its hand out an opening in the side of the Careening Metal and pointing its middle finger at her before she moved along. What was that about, she wondered? Must be a form of greeting in these parts. She turned one more time to return the greeting and then sprinted to catch up with the sharkû just as he was approaching the old woman.
The old woman had stopped walking and was staring at them with a sort of you-idiots expression on her face (if the reader will pardon the narrator's lack of ability to honestly describe the woman's expression any other way). She glanced each of them over with eyes that were both critical and apathetic (almost as if she were quite used to—and possibly even tired of—seeing traffic disrupted by old robed men accompanied by giant wolves and muscular goblin-like creatures) and then she turned her back to them as if this was all really too much nonsense that she didn't have time for, and began walking again.
"Excuse me," said Saruman in a voice straining to be high and lofty, but really with a painfully obvious and pathetic edge of desperation.
She turned again. The annoyance on her face was clear, she probably had things to do, but underneath was the faintest glint of curiosity in her steely grey eyes. She looked the motley crew over again, and now her expression was almost appraising.
Poor Saruman had never felt so awkward in his life. He had to say something to this wondrous creature, something that would sweep her off her feet. He couldn't live if he allowed her to get away. What to say what to say what to say—
"Good...morning," he choked out.
The woman did not look impressed. She regarded him again for a moment. Then she spoke in a quick cadence with a voice rather low and harsh, for a woman's: "What do you mean? Are you implying it is a good morning for you, or that it is a good morning for me? How would you even know if I'm having a good morning?" Her tone turned scathing. "Are you implying that it is a good morning to almost get hit by a car? Are you implying that it's a good morning to have no idea that it's not morning at all and is in fact afternoon?"
Saruman stopped and thought. He would have liked to say something along the lines of, None of these, what I meant was that I love you, but he felt that wouldn't quite do. He knew nothing of the cultural practices of this place, but he would have guessed it was probably considered rather forward to declare passionate love for someone at a first meeting in most places in the universe, and he felt foolish enough as it was.
Oh! He should probably say something now, she was looking at him again. And with such beautiful eyes! Such a strong grey color! They reminded him of—Gandalf the Grey. Oh. That was an unpleasant association. And Gandalf reminded him of smoke rings, and before he could think he said something nonsensical about that what he meant was of course that it wasa very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors.
"I have no time to smoke this morning," returned the woman in a clipped, brisk tone. "I am taking my afternoon walk and then I need to pack for an…adventure my grandson is arranging, and it's very difficult to find anything. That darn housekeeper…" She paused. "Why am I telling you this?"
Saruman's face fell. A grandson? Was this woman married?
"An adventure?" piped up Ulga in spite of herself. "Are you looking for companions—"
"Not you," said the woman.
Now Ulga's face fell.
"It's far too early in the year for Halloween costumes, especially ones that look like that," continued the woman bluntly. Ulga hadn't the faintest idea what that meant but it sounded like an insult and she felt offended. Still, she reasoned, this was all a big step up from almost getting killed every time a Human saw her. Here, though it seemed they might not all have nice expressions or kind things to say, so far at least one of them was looking at her and speaking to her instead of immediately reaching for a weapon, and this change was filling her with new courage and boldness. Maybe in time she could win them over.
Warg growled, just the slightest, quietest little warning of a growl, but it was enough for the woman to take half a step back. "That abomination of yours should be kept on a leash."
"Excuse me, but—"
"Hush," said Saruman. He felt more in command of himself now, and had regained some of his usual imperiousness.
"Who are you to hush me?" demanded Ulga, caught up with her newfound boldness and momentarily forgetting her wish to be helpful.
Saruman looked up at her gravely. "I am Saruman the White Wizard, leader of the Istari of Middle-earth. You, creature of Morgoth, are not fit to exist in the same universe as this fair creature, let alone to look upon her and speak such disrespectful words as you, no doubt, were planning to speak. I will not allow it."
He bowed to the woman. "Forgive me, my lo—I mean, milady.
The woman began cackling. "I don't know what all this is, or what it's supposed to be, but it's extremely entertaining."
Meanwhile Ulga suddenly felt unsteady on her feet again. The whole world swirled again. She began to look even greener than usual. So she had made it to Isengard after all back in the snowstorm? The weird, rude, slightly senile old man, the sharkû, was the White Wizard she'd been seeking so long? Impossible. He was lying, faking. It was impossible. The real White Wizard, the one that had lived so long in her imagination, was not like this. He was young-looking, soft and gentle, understanding. He did not judge. He also did not dart across dangerous roads in love-struck pursuit of old ladies. But on the other hand…who but a Wizard would have had the power to transport himself and her to completely other worlds? What if he hadn't been following her like she'd thought? What if she had been the one following him somehow? Maybe, due to the nature of whatever magic he was using, anyone who happened to be near him got accidentally transported along with him. Well, this was disappointing.
This whole day had to be a nightmare, right? She knew she had already decided with herself earlier that it wasn't. But maybe this was an unusually sharp, clear, lifelike nightmare. Brought on by the trauma of witnessing Gorbra's death or the blizzard or something. None of today made a particle of sense, none of it was how things were supposed to be. She took a deep breath. Maybe if she just waited, she would wake up soon. Might as well watch the goings on. As the old woman had said, it could be extremely entertaining.
While she'd been mulling all of this over, Saruman had decided it was time for introductions to be made. He cleared his throat. "You may call me Curunír if you please, madam."
"Very well, Crooner-If-You-Please," said the woman dryly. "And what do you croon?"
"Your name, if you would be so kind as to tell me what it is." Saruman clearly thought he was being quite smooth.
The woman just looked amused. "Lucinda-If-You-Please," said she, curtseying mockingly.
Ulga cleared her throat, determined not to be overlooked. "And I am Ulga-If-You-Please." She followed her if-you-please with an awkward attempt at a curtsey, figuring both were important forms of introduction here.
Lucinda and Saruman both flashed dirty looks at her, but she wasn't done speaking yet. "And this is Warg-If-You-Please," pointing up at her Wolf. She glared at Warg until Warg seemed to get the hint and briefly lowered the front half of her body and ducked her head, the closest she could really get to a curtsey (it was still better than Ulga's).
"Well," said Lucinda, "it was quite, ah, smashing to meet you but I must be on my way." She turned briskly and began to stride back down the street.
Saruman was about to panic. She was getting away! "WAIT!" he called after her, using his special occasion voice for the second time that day.
She turned and glared at him. "Yes?"
"Where…are you going?"
"That, Crooner, is none of your business. Off with you."
"Are you sure I could not be of assistance to you?"
"Look, is there anything I can say to get rid of you?"
He was silent, trying to think of an answer that was true but wouldn't sound creepy. He supposed if this woman adamantly ordered him away, there would be nothing he could do; he would not follow her or inflict his presence on her against her will.
"You're completely cracked, aren't you?" laughed the woman derisively. "You could be massively entertaining to have around. You seem extremely harmless, and tractable too. And we've got plenty of room… It's a crazy scheme, but I like it. Yes, I will go so far as to take you with me on this adventure. Very amusing for me, very good for you… Afterwards I suppose I'll have to take you back to whatever nursing home you escaped from, but for now we can have some fun. Follow me to the house. I'm just coming back from my walk so it's not far."
This woman must have bewitched Saruman. He didn't often smile, and it was quite a sight to see him now. Even his bushy mustache and long beard and efforts not to appear undignified by smiling, couldn't stop or hide the smile on his face. He had no idea what Lucinda's plans were except that now they involved him, and that was good enough.
Ulga was not so happy; she didn't fancy being left behind in a completely foreign universe, by probably the only person who could get her back to the one she'd just left. But some instinct told her not to make a fuss just yet. Instead she and Warg quietly followed the pair down the raised edge of the street.
She gazed at the buildings on both sides of the street as she walked; she'd already gotten over some of the initial shock of being in such a new place and now she found that the look of them was growing on her. Really, they were much nicer than the ones she was accustomed to at her home, unembellished caves and lean-tos and things. These were painted in pretty pastels or rich, dark tones, and with their plots of short grass in front she decided they looked very classy, in an outlandish sort of way.
Lucinda was speaking now. "My weird grandson and his weird little friend have gotten it into their heads that they want to go on a wild goose chase for Bigfoot. Ridiculous. But the more I thought about it, the more appealing the idea sounded. The truth is, I'm bored with my life, been bored with it for years. I want a change of scenery. It didn't used to be this way. Oh, no. Back in the day, in my prime, things were different, and the stories I could tell, if I wanted! Ah, but ever since my daughter and her husband died and I got stuck with the kids, I've lived quite a boring life of it. So, back to my original point. We're all going Bigfooting for the summer, at least for a few weeks, probably longer. And of course there will be a bit of shopping, a bit of sightseeing. I may visit some old friends. The boys will be doing the actual Bigfooting, I should say. For my part, I think the whole thing is ridiculous and I don't fancy traipsing about in the woods looking for things that don't exist. Idiots. But it gets them out of my hair for a little while. My two granddaughters are coming with us too."
For a few moments a confused silence reigned, and then Saruman managed to pick one of the many questions out of his head, the one that seemed most pertinent, and asked it: "May I enquire as to what a…Bigfoot might be?"
Lucinda stared at him for a long time. Saruman gazed back, spellbound, analyzing the subtle tints of blue and green in her eyes.
"You don't get out much, do you?" was her reply.
"I fail to see how that is relevant to my question."
She waved him off. "I'll have the boys explain it to you, they know much more of the nonsense than I do. Here we are!" She motioned to a rose colored house on their right, the most ornate one Ulga had seen so far, and the biggest.
Ulga's eyes were drawn to an enormous, stationary Careening Metal sitting on the side of the road, in front of the house. The front portion was shiny and black, and hitched onto the back of it somehow was a second section, even bigger than the first. She'd bet that was what they were taking on their journey in this bizarrely futuristic place; she hadn't seen anyone riding a horse or using a horse-drawn carriage yet. Maybe there were no horses here at all. Her stomach growled in disappointment.
Lucinda and the sharkû were going up the walk now, and the sharkû was saying something complimentary about the house, and Ulga, pleased at her own sneakiness, had crept up behind them. She was just about to slip into the front doorway after them when the door upset her plans by slamming in her face. Next she heard the distinct click of a lock being turned.
Ulga bristled. Now that was just mean. She turned around to find some other place to go, and then turned on her heel again and strode back up to the door. She raised her arm and pounded on the door. Anyone in the house would be sure to hear that. She waited. The door did not open. She pounded the door again, even louder. She knew they were in there, they'd have to let her in eventually. They weren't getting rid of her so easily. The grumpy sharkû had brought her into this world, and the grumpy sharkû would sure as heck have to either take her out of it or at the very least not abandon her for whatever length of time they both happened to be here. He owedthat to her, darn it. She was just about to hit the door so hard it broke, when a new thought occurred to her.
If she couldn't come with them on this mysterious journey by force, maybe she could by stealth. She looked hard at the enormous Careening Metal in front of the dwelling again. Probably the thing was locked. Probably someone would catch her before the journey was undertaken. Probably they would throw her out…if they were strong enough. She smiled almost evilly. She could take most Uruks. A little human wouldn't even be a challenge. (Unless there was a group of little humans and they were armed with futuristic weapons; she didn't allow herself to dwell too much on this possibility.)
A better thought immediately occurred, a nicer and more characteristic one. She could probably help them. Maybe there were things she could do that they couldn't; she was so strong. She would probably be an asset to them on this journey, whatever it was. Maybe she could plead her case instead of fighting them. Ulga had always preferred to love rather than fight, although of course if it came to fighting she had to say she didn't absolutely hate it…and she was good at it too. But fighting humans was different, something she'd never done before, never wanted to do. These humans owed her something, or at least one of them did (if the sharkû was human; he had claimed to be otherwise), and they had been uncivil. Still, she would be civil to them. She would prove herself to them. They expected certain things of her because she was an Orc, and she would not give them the satisfaction of having those expectations proved correct.
She stared at the Careening Metal for a few moments, eyes narrowed. If she crawled in would it sense her presence and start to move with her inside? Somehow she didn't think so, and the possibility of that happening seemed less dire and less likely than the possibility of being left behind. But how to get in? She circled it slowly, searching for the likeliest point of entry. She didn't like all those windows in the front of the first one, not at all. But the back one looked safer. It had windows, but they were much smaller. And there seemed to be a door-like thing, over on its right side. It was definitely locked, right?
Wrong! It swung out to greet her as she pulled the handle. She looked carefully behind her to make sure no one was watching, and then poked her head inside and looked around. She didn't see anyone there, but best to have a quick look around. For the first time that day she remembered the dagger in her tattered belt and drew it, just in case. She crept carefully inside. Warg followed, although it took her longer because she was a very large wolf, and the opening was too small for her to fit through without a lot of wriggling.
The place was actually quite spacious and nice. Varying shades of warm brown seemed the predominating color scheme. It reminded her of living quarters, rather than something a person would use only as transportation from one place to another. Directly across from her was a comfortable looking sofa, and to her right, behind a shelf with a large, shiny rectangular thing on it, was a large bed. She rounded the corner to her left. Now there was a little table on her right, and another, smaller door on her left. She'd investigate the door in a moment, but for now she moved straight ahead, towards the back of the enclosure, where there were interesting shelves, two on each side, large and padded. Beds, maybe? A few large, sturdy-looking bags and boxes were on each one.
Before she had time to consider this more, her thoughts were arrested by something else. She locked eyes with it, but its eyes were already locked on her. Establishing dominance. It wielded a dagger, just as she did. It was one of her kind, female. They both waited for a moment, watching to see what the other would do. Ulga didn't think she detected any overt hostility in her eyes, just wariness. The other Orc would defend herself if she had to, but only if she felt she had to. She lowered her dagger, and the other Orc did the same, at the exact same time and speed too. Was she mimicking her movements? She felt a flicker of irritation.
"Stop that," she said. The Orc's mouth silently formed her words just as she said them. What kind of witchcraft… She approached the Orc again, and the Orc approached her. Ulga stared hard at her. Very slowly Ulga raised her left arm and reached it toward the other Orc's right. Their hands almost met. There was a pane of glass in between them. She hadn't noticed it before.
She started as if she'd been shocked. She backed up until she almost ran into Warg, who was absorbed in sniffing a big shiny black box jutting out from the wall. Warg looked up.
"Warg, we're in there!"
Warg looked at her quizzically.
"Look at this! Come see yourself." She led the Wolf over to the mirror.
But Warg's reaction was hastier than hers. Warg growled and the Wolf in the glass seemed to growl back. Her hackles rose, and she waited only a moment before charging. Her teeth and nose clashed against the glass with a very loud clank. The impact of it was enough to shake the Careening Metal. She shook her head and then stepped back to stare at her reflection in the cracked glass.
"Well, that's not good," said Ulga. She thought she heard Warg sigh very quietly.
She turned her eyes almost unwillingly to her reflection in the mirror again, above the cracked portion. She supposed she should be delighted with what she saw. Certainly now she understood why the male Orcs seemed to like her so well. But she thought she had an idea of what most Humans found attractive, or even passable, and her face, her hair, her body, none of it was even close.
She turned away from the mirror. She twiddled her thumbs. Now that she had made the tour of the place, there didn't seem to be much else to do, and she was very tired. All the events of that day had caught up with her and what she wanted now was sleep. At first she thought to curl up on the big bed to the right of the door, but she found it was too soft and she couldn't get comfortable. She ended up sitting in the bathtub (it was what was behind the door she'd seen earlier) with her knees drawn against her chest and her head lolled against the wall, because the tub's coolness and hardness felt cavelike to her, and consequently more comfortable than anything else. Warg did not have Ulga's issue with soft bedding, so she sprawled out on the big mattress Ulga had rejected. In a matter of minutes, both were snoring.